Municipal Elections in Chile: Major Loss for Governing Coalition

On Sunday, October 23rd, Chile held its seventh municipal elections since its return to democracy. The country elected a total of 345 mayors and around 2,300 city council members.

Three major conclusions can be drawn from these elections:

  • The improved positioning of the center-right to win the presidential elections in November 2017. This is especially important since its main figure (former President Sebastián Piñera) currently appears stronger in the polls.
  • The outcome was a major defeat for Michelle Bachelet’s governing coalition, in its second term in office.
  • The Chilean’s distrust of politicians has reached never-before-seen levels, which is reflected in historically low voter turnout. Only 34% of the electorate came out to vote.

Reading in Presidential Code

The Chilean electoral system and presidential rule have traditionally favored the existence of two large political coalitions. Since the country’s return to democracy in 1990, left-leaning parties have been grouped under the canopy of Nueva Mayoría (formerly Concertación), while the right-wing parties make up Chile Vamos (formerly Alianza).

Nueva Mayoría consists of seven parties that range from the Christian Democrats of the recently deceased Patricio Aylwin (Chile’s first democratically elected president after the dictatorship) to the Communist Party. In between are the socialist party of current president Michelle Bachelet and Partido por la Democracia (PPD) of former president Ricardo Lagos.

On the other extreme is Chile Vamos, which brings together, from less to more conservative, Evópoli, Partido Regionalista Independiente, Renovación Nacional (the party of former president Sebastián Piñera) and Unión Demócrata Independiente.

In the last three electoral cycles, the coalition with the most votes in the municipal elections has won the presidential elections the following year. For example, the significant advantage obtained by the left-leaning coalition in the 2004 municipal elections (55%) was followed by Bachelet’s victory in 2005. And in 2008, losses in key districts for the left (Santiago, Valparaíso and a large number of regional capitals) foretold Sebastián Piñera’s triumph in 2009. This process was reversed in favor of the right-wing coalition in 2012, when Michelle Bachelet was reelected. In these cases, the important districts are key to giving each pact a sense of victory.

An aggregate reading of the results from Sunday’s municipal elections give Chile Vamos the advantage to carry their candidate to victory in next year’s November presidential elections.

Should this hypothesis come to fruition, Chile would experience not only a new shift in political orientation in the executive branch, but would also see 16 years of perfect rotation of power between the center-left and the center-right (Bachelet 2006 – Piñera 2010 – Bachelet 2014 – center-right president 2018).

It is worth remembering that after the 1988 plebiscite that said “NO” to the continuation of Augusto Pinochet’s military government, democratic elections were held in 1989 that began a period of 20 years of consecutive center-left administrations (Aylwin, Frei Ruiz-Tagle, Lagos and Bachelet). Only the proposal from Piñera in 2010 was able to interrupt this winning streak and return the center-right to elected power, a first since 1952.

Outcomes by Coalition

And, in this context, can we predict the name of the next president of Chile? Not yet, but everything indicates that the dispute will be between two former presidents.

One year before the presidential battle, Ricardo Lagos has officially announced his intention to run. The former president must still conquer the coalition mechanism that requires consensus (either through a pact or primaries) on one candidate. Up to this point, Lagos has seemingly enjoyed enough political capital to represent the Nueva Mayoría coalition in the presidential elections. However, his name still does not stir up enough popular support from the sector. He lags behind the left-wing senator Alejandro Guillier—a former TV journalist—in terms of popularity and approval ratings, although the senator is not ahead in voting intention polls.

In the right-wing coalition, the current favorite is former president Sebastián Piñera, who participated actively in municipal election campaigns and has been able to leverage his sector’s triumph on October 23rd.

Therefore, if the projection that the coalition with the most votes in the municipal elections will win the presidency next year comes true, Piñera could take over as Head of State from Bachelet in 2018, just like he did in 2010.

Some Key Results

In concrete terms, the election was a major loss for President Michelle Bachelet’s governing coalition, Nueva Mayoría. Of the 168 mayor seats previously held by the left coalition, it lost 30. Several of the lost seats were in more important or larger districts. The opposition, on the other hand, gained 22 new mayors to total 142. The rest are independent mayors.

One key indicator for next year’s presidential elections is the total population governed by each coalition. Chile Vamos will be governing 45% of the country under its parties’ mayors while Nueva Mayoría will only have 39%.

In terms of support for individual parties, figures have not varied significantly with respect to the 2012 municipal elections. A large majority of them have lost support at any rate.

Voter Turnout

The big surprise from these elections was the abstention rates. Only 34% of the electorate voted, which is the lowest figure in the entire post-dictatorship period. Nueva Mayoría obtained 677,000 fewer votes while Chile Vamos surrendered 387,000. Overall, one million votes were lost.

In democratic systems with voluntary voting, turnout rates can be an indicator of the connection between citizens and politicians. In Chile, which returned to democracy 26 years ago, voluntary vote began in the 2012 municipal elections, when voter turnout was 43% (around 5.8 million voters cast their ballots). Voter apathy can be read as people not perceiving major risks or problems with the governing party, that everything should continue as normal. But, the Chilean political class has read it as a clear sign of warning and concern.

It would come as no surprise if the debate on whether to reinstate mandatory voting surfaces in the next few weeks.

A set of circumstances specific to these elections can help explain the low turnout rates: a poor primary process failed to ensure genuine competition and interest; changes in the campaign financing system limited the sensation of campaigning and strengthened incumbents; and technological errors in the handling of electoral rolls led to address changes for tens of thousands of voters, seemingly without their consent.

More profound factors have to do with last year’s cases of corruption and irregular campaign donations from the corporate world to politicians of all stripes, which have created a domestic climate of distrust and low credibility in politics and in politicians. Corruption in Chile—although it continues to boast one of the region’s lowest levels—has generated growing concern among Chileans.

What is to Come

In the second half of her term, Bachelet and her administration are facing a situation of fatigue.

After promoting ambitious initiatives in her first two years in office (labor, tax, education and constitutional reforms), her approval ratings are at historical lows (ranging from 15% and 22% according to polls).

On a political level, the coalition’s failure in the municipal elections represents not only a loss of power on a local level, but also the possibility of escalating tension between Bachelet and her own coalition if the loss is attributed to her scant popularity. Her decisions regarding her team and the actions of some ministers during times of crisis have already generated criticism within the center-left block, in addition to predictable attacks from the opposition.

Despite this, in the next few weeks the administration must manage to hammer out one of the most important initiatives of any government: the Budget Bill, which is not free of controversy. Despite Chile’s most modest budget increase in 14 years (which must respond to growing social demands, especially in the area of education), the budget deficit will increase to 3.3% of GDP, which is the second largest deficit since the country regained democracy.

Thus, the government finds itself in a complex political and economic situation, in a country with historical levels of credibility that continues to be an important hub for investment.


Extend Communications

With a 25 year history in the market, Extend Comunicaciones is the leading corporate communications and public affairs agency in Chile. The firm has a advised many different private and public companies and institutions during throughout Chile’s political and economic development in the last two decades. To find out more, visit:

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