The Victory of the Concertación in the December 11 Presidential and Parliamentary Elections in Chile

The Victory of the Concertación in the December 11 Presidential and Parliamentary Elections in Chile

Theme: The December 11 presidential and parliamentary elections in Chile enabled the governing Concertación to revalidate its wins, although the election of the new president will have to go to a runoff election.

Summary: On December 11, presidential and parliamentary elections were held simultaneously. All 120 seats in the Chamber were contested, as well as the seats of 20 of the 38 senators, including all four of the Santiago metropolitan region. The presidential elections were won by Michelle Bachelet (Socialist Party – PS), standard-bearer of the centre-left parties that make up the Concertación por la Democracia, with 45.95% of votes; Sebastián Piñera (Renovación Nacional – RN) received 25.41%; Joaquín Lavín (Unión Demócrata Independiente – UDI) received 23.2%, with 5.4% for Tomás Hirsch (Juntos Podemos Más). Bachelet and Piñera will go on to a runoff election to be held on January 15, 2006, with the former being most likely to win. In the parliamentary elections, the Concertación received 51.7% of votes, electing 66 of the 120 deputies, while the right-wing opposition, the Alianza por Chile, won 38.7%, giving it 54 deputies. For the first time in the new democracy, the Concertación obtained a majority in the Senate, since the 2005 reform eliminated all unelected senators, who had prevented a majority in the four previous legislatures.

Analysis: The parliamentary elections are held under a binominal system (with two seats per electoral district). This was established by the Pinochet regime and favours the largest minority. Deputies are elected for four years and senators for eight years. The president is elected for a four-year term and cannot be re-elected for the immediately subsequent term. There is a mandatory runoff election if no candidate wins the absolute majority of valid votes. This happened for the first time in the 1999 presidential elections, when Ricardo Lagos won the runoff election over Joaquín Lavín (UDI), standard-bearer of the two right-wing parties, UDI and RN. In the two previous elections, in 1989 and 1993, Patricio Aylwin (1990-94) and Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle (1994-2000), won with large majorities. Both were Christian Democrats and candidates for the Concertación, which brings together groups that were in opposition to the Pinochet dictatorship. This group defeated the general in the plebiscite on succession on October 5, 1988, opening the door to democratisation.

The difference between this and other presidential elections in the past is that, in addition to the candidature of Concertación, with Michelle Bachelet (PS), and that of the Juntos Podemos Más pact, supported by the Communist Party (PC), with Tomás Hirsch, the right, joined in the Alianza por Chile coalition, went to the polls divided between the candidatures of Sebastián Piñera (RN) and Joaquín Lavín (UDI). The latter led the right in the 1999 presidential elections, ending up only 31,000 votes behind Ricardo Lagos in the first round. Lavín had been the Alianza candidate until May 2005, when, without warning, RN decided to nominate businessman Sebastián Piñera, since Lavín had been unable to reduce the wide gap separating him from the front-runner, Bachelet.

The fact that the elections were held at the same time posed enormous challenges to the parties and candidates, making it necessary to allocate resources to mobilise support at both levels.

In several public statements made in 2005 at the inauguration of public works and other government events, President Lagos declared his support for the continuity of a Concertación government and berated the opposition for not supporting his social programmes. However, he did not manage to pass his popularity on to the presidential candidate. Among other reason, this was because a part of the right that had backed him voted for Piñera or Lavín. These declarations by the President were a first in Chilean presidential politics, since past heads of state abstained from making statements of this kind. It is an interesting development that encourages a sequence of good governments and the continuity of public policies in a political system that does not allow presidents to be re-elected.

Figure 1. Electoral Results in the Chamber of Deputies, 2001 and 2005 Elections

Extra-parliamentary left390,3806.35482,5077.40

* According to the results of 98.78% of polling stations in the country.
** Communist Party and Humanist Party, which in the 2001 election did not have a pact; the votes obtained by both and therefore combined.
*** For the 2001 election, this includes the votes obtained by the Liberal Party plus candidates outside the pact. For the 2005 election, this includes the Fuerza Regional Independiente and the candidates outside the pact. Does not reflect whether after being elected they joined any party.
Source: Ministry of the Interior website:

Bachelet obtained 45.95% of the vote, less than President Ricardo Lagos obtained in 1999 (47.96%) and less than the 51.77% received by the slate of candidates (deputies) for the Concertación. Lavín’s result was similar to that of the list of candidates for the UDI (23.22% and 22.34%, respectively) and Piñera received a large percentage of votes (25.41%), enabling him to go on to the second round (runoff election), although his list of candidates for parliament received only 14.12%. Tomás Hirsch received 5.4%, a poorer result than his list of parliamentary candidates (7.4%).

Bachelet was frustrated by the fact that she received fewer votes than Lagos, since the political panorama seemed very favourable to her, given the tough political period the incumbent president was going through. The Concertación was at the time divided by the arrest of General Pinochet in London: the government of President Frei Ruiz-Tagle held the position that he must return to Chile, while a sector of the PS and the PDC supported his extradition to Spain and were prepared to accept the decision of judge Baltasar Garzón. The economic situation was relatively bad due to the impact of the Asian crisis, poor decisions made by the Central Bank and high unemployment.

In the 2005 elections, the government was cohesive and widely backed by voters; a survey by the Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Contemporánea (CERC) in late November indicated that 70% of the population approved of its performance; the economy was growing strongly; and even unemployment was dropping. There are several reasons for Bachelet’s election results. Her campaign suffered from over-confidence, based on the broad support indicated by the polls. Bachelet had become the standard-bearer for the PS and the Partido por la Democracia (PPD) and then easily beat the candidate for Democracia Cristiana (DC), Soledad Alvear, who gave up her nomination in early May. The ‘Bachelet phenomenon’ was supposedly based on solid political backing and public recognition of her personal attributes. This turned out to be a mirage, since this kind of leadership has a very short life span and experience suggests the need to support it with the resources of an organisation.

Secondly, the presidential command structure did not develop a country-wide organisation or coordination with the political parties, as it was convinced that Bachelet would win easily as the ‘people’s choice’. In fact, an attempt was made to keep a distance from the traditional parties, which are very strong in Chile, and focus energies on the parliamentary battle. The parties of the PS/PPD bloc did nothing to solidly support her campaign and spent their energies competing with the PDC. Finally, the gender factor played a role, reflecting the country’s strong conservative sector, and this was not foreseen by her campaign analysts.

The Concertación won easily in the elections to the National Congress and its list was made up of two candidatures: the bloc formed by the leftist parties –PS, PPD and the Radical Social Democratic Party (PRSD)– and the list of candidates for the PDC. Competition between the two was intense and the results show that coalition voters were mobilised and that each one maintained the electoral support it had received in the 2001 elections. If there had been two presidential candidates, the Concertación would have obtained a better result than it did in the first round. It is very likely that the Concertación will present more than one candidate for the presidency in the 2009 elections.

The PDC faced a difficult situation, since 10 of its 11 elected senators were up for re-election, while this was the case of only one in nine in the PS/PPD/PRSD bloc. The left-wing bloc received 28.97% of votes and 44 deputies were elected (35.8%). The PPD made a careful selection of candidates and focused their resources on them. Some, including one from the PS, already had a high profile as TV personalities. With 15.44% of the vote, the PPD elected 22 deputies, one of whom ran as an independent on the Concertación list. This was Tucapel Jiménez, son of the prominent trade union leader of the same name murdered in 1982 by members of the dictatorship’s security services who were eventually sent to prison after a lengthy legal investigation after the transition to democracy.

The PS maintained its share of the vote: 10.02%, similar to the previous elections, electing 15 deputies. The PRSD, with only 3.51% of the vote, won seven seats. The three parties rose by only two points from the 2001 parliamentary elections and gained seven deputies.

The PDC obtained 20.78% of the vote and elected 21 deputies (16.6% of seats), a higher percentage than in 2001 (18.92%), when 23 of their deputies were elected. On this occasion, the PDC had more candidates competing in the 60 districts, making their results a setback. There are several reasons for this. First of all, they did not campaign with effective centralised organisation. Resources should have been allocated at the national level, especially to support candidates in the more difficult districts. Not enough effort was put into candidate selection. There were few new faces in the big cities, especially Santiago, unlike in the 2004 municipal elections, where new faces brought good results. In five cases, deputies who were set to be re-elected for the second or third time were defeated by new PPD or PS candidates. Third, there were campaigning mistakes. For example, prime-time TV ads did not include reference to former Presidents Aylwin and Frei Ruiz-Tagle, but showed images of President Frei Montalvo (1964-70), the party’s grandest historical figure and the first Christian Democrat prime minister in Latin America.

The electoral results for the PDC were bad in the Senate, where they lost three senators –Andrés Zaldívar, Carmen Frei and Sergio Páez– and three did not run again for office –Alejandro Foxley, Rafael Moreno and José Ruiz de Giorgio–. In the case of these last two, their seat was won by a PS senator. Jorge Pizarro, Soledad Alvear –who succeeded Foxley after facing a weak challenger in the left-wing bloc–, Mariano Ruiz-Esquide, Hosaín Sabag and Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle were all elected. Adolfo Zaldívar, party president, was not up for re-election. This left only six senators in their group. The biggest upset was the defeat of Andrés Zaldívar (at the hands of Guido Girardi – PPD), a prominent figure in the party, former Minister of the Treasury in the Frei Montalvo government, twice President, exiled by the dictatorship in 1980 and later living in Spain, who had first been elected to the senate in 1989, defeating Ricardo Lagos, and re-elected in 1997. The two-seat system worked against him, since despite winning more votes than Jovino Novoa, the UDI president, he failed to win a place in the Senate. Something similar occurred in 1989 with Lagos, who won more votes than the senator elected on the right-wing list, Jaime Guzmán, founder and president of the UDI.

The Concertación won a comfortable majority (66 deputies) in the Chamber, made possible by doubling the right-wing vote in six districts. The binominal system favoured the right, which obtained 38.70% of the votes and 54 deputies (44.9% of the seats), losing three. In the 2001 elections they also benefited, though to a lesser degree: 44.27% of the vote gave them 47.4% of the seats. The PS-PPD-PRSD bloc also benefited, obtaining 35.8% of the seats with 29% of the vote. The losers were the PDC and the extra-parliamentary left, which did not elect a single deputy, the same as in the four previous elections.

Competition between the two presidential candidates on the right led to a mobilisation of their supports, giving them more votes than those obtained by the Concertación. The competition for parliamentary seats was of vital importance to the UDI, since five of their seven senators were up for re-election, two of them gave up their candidacy, while RN was in the opposite situation: only two of their seven senators had to run again and none left the Congress.

Piñera’s victory over Lavín was not expected when he first launched his campaign, but began to become clear a few months later in the polls. It was a hard blow to the UDI, but did not translate into more votes for his party in the election, because he could not pass his popularity on to the rest of the party. RN received 14.12% of the vote, similar to 2001 (13.77%), and elected 19 deputies, one more than four years ago. The party did not have good results in the Senate: it lost one senator who was running for re-election (Mario Ríos, who had been vice-president of the upper house) and re-elected Carlos Cantero. The loss of Ríos was compensated by the victory of Carlos Kutschel, deputy for the Tenth Region (south), where a UDI seat had been held by the former General Director of the Carabineros, Rodolfo Strange, who did not run. Andrés Allamand, former president of RN, was also elected in the Tenth Region (north) as the sole candidate for the Alianza. RN therefore ended up with one more senator, for a total of eight.

Piñera’s main weakness was in the elections to the Senate in the Santiago area, considered a key test of party power. In the Santiago Oriente district, the UDI ran deputy Pablo Longueira, who had been party president for several years, while in the other district, current president Jovino Novoa ran. In the first district, RN candidate Lily Pérez received 19.69% of the vote, a considerable distance behind Longueira, with 24.01%; in the second district, the RN representative, independent businessman Roberto Fantuzzi, received 14.03%, while Novoa obtained 20.72%. It is interesting to note that stability of the support received by the four Alianza candidates, compared with the votes received in the previous elections to the Senate in 1997. Longueira’s victory was a hard blow to Piñera, who had been a harsh adversary of the RN leader, at one point forcing Piñera to give up his candidacy for the Senate in the 2001 elections.

The UDI managed to re-elect three senators (Jovino Novoa, Andrés Chadwick and Evelyn Matthei) but lost Sergio Fernández in Magallanes (where an independent right-of-centre candidate was elected). This was compensated by the victory of Víctor Pérez over Mario Ríos in district 13. Carlos Bombal, senator for Santiago Oriente, lost the election and failed to stop the double win by the Concertación in district 12. The UDI now has a group of 33 members in the lower house, two more than before.

The election results constituted a major triumph for the UDI over RN. Not only did the UDI win considerably more votes, it confirmed itself as Chile’s leading party since the 2001 elections, even though it lost votes. In 2001 it received 25.18%, compared with 22.34% in these elections.

Conclusions: Concertación por la Democracia scored a major victory in the parliamentary and presidential elections on December 11, winning a majority of votes for the lower and upper houses. For the first time since the 1989 elections, the party will have a majority in the Senate. The presidential standard-bearer, Michelle Bachelet, can face the runoff election with optimism, since she has a solid base of support with 51.7% of the parliamentary votes, compared with Alianza por Chile’s 38.7%. This would make her the first woman to become President of a South American country. The Alianza por Chile candidate, Sebastián Piñera, faces the difficult task of mobilising those who voted for Lavín, and must overcome his party’s conflicts with the UDI over the past three years. As a result, the most likely scenario is that Bachelet will win by a wider margin than in 2000. Surveys conducted before the first round of elections indicated as much. If this happens, it would be significant in terms of comparative politics, because there is no other ‘third wave’ democracy in which the coalition that controlled the government since the first elections has won the next three in a row and managed to control both houses. The senate majority is unprecedented in Chilean 20th century history. No president has ever achieved this before.

Carlos Huneeus
Professor at the International Studies Institute, Universidad de Chile, and Executive Director of the CERC Corporation

Carlos Huneeus

Written by Carlos Huneeus