On December 13, 2009, seven millions Chileans went to the polls to elect the president who will run the country from 2010 to 2014. Although no candidate reached the absolute majority, for the first time since democratization, the Concertación (CPD), ruling the country since 1990, came out second (obtaining 29,6%) and trailing by far the right-wing candidate, Sebastián Piñera (44,05%). Piñera was finally elected President in the runoff election with the support of the Alianza por Chile and its two historical parties, Renovación Nacional-RN and the UDI. The explanation of CPD´s vote decrease in the first round was that three former politicians of the Concertación (Eduardo Frei, Marco Enríquez-Ominami, and Jorge Arrate) competed for the center-left vote. The official candidate of this coalition (Eduardo Frei) received a serious challenge from Marco Enríquez-Ominami, a congress-member of the Partido Socialista, who ran the most successful independent campaign in the post-1990 period, and was able to rally 20,13% of the first round vote, under a renovating and anti-traditional politician campaign. Jorge Arrate, a former minister of Patricio Aylwin (Education Minister) and Eduardo Frei (Labour Minister), also obtained historic numbers for the Pacto Juntos Podemos (in which the Communist Party is the central player), reaching 6,21%.
At the same time, there was a complete renewal of the lower-chamber (120 seats) and 47% of the senate (18 seats were replaced). This time, 94 of incumbent deputies ran again (78%) to the chamber and 77 of them (64%) was reelected, maintaining a historical renewal average of 36%. The failures of independent candidates without pact affiliation, and particularly, the defeat of all congressional candidates aligned with the relatively successful presidential candidacy of Enríquez-Ominami, demonstrated once again the efficiency of the binominal electoral system in benefiting the two mainstream electoral pacts (the Alianza and the Concertación) to the detriment of independents. This was further confirmed by the election of three Communist Party representatives as a result of the implicit electoral pact (pacto por omisión) between that party and the Concertación, which sacrificed its own candidates in those districts to enable the election of Communist ones. Beyond penalizing independents, concentrating competition within each electoral pact, and disproportionately allocating seats in regard to the popular vote, the binominal system also confirmed its importance for centralizing power at the top of each political party. The power to nominate, which sometimes acts as a power to virtually elect a candidate, continues to depend on top party leaders and is one of the mechanisms through which political parties in Chile have coped with party-organization sclerosis and centrifugal trends. This has enabled the Concertación for instance, to maintain its congressional candidates aligned with the presidential candidacy of Eduardo Frei, resisting unofficial endorsements by the candidacy of Enríquez-Ominami, in the midst of an inauspicious scenario regarding the presidential race.
Finally, in the runoff election of January 17, 2010, Piñera won the presidency by a close margin (3,2%), becoming the first elected rightist candidate since Jorge Alessandri in 1958. The built-up of an electorally viable and legitimate center-right alternative brings alternation in power after four elections, formally consolidating Chilean democracy, and opening room for political renovation on both sides of the aisle. If such renovation is pushed, the authoritarian/democratic divide that governed post-Pinochet political alignments in Chile will finally erode.
We believe, thus, that this election cycle conveys some clear messages on the recent and future evolution of Chilean politics. First of all, alternation in power, after twenty years, contributes to the consolidation of democracy. The center-right, finally, has found a viable candidate who was able to “legitimize” its bid in the election. If Piñera, while governing, is able to build a centrist front, further renovation (i.e. democratization) of the center-right is possible. This is not easy, however, given the congressional strength of the UDI, and its weight within the Alianza. At the same time, the Concertación’s survival, out of presidential office, is endangered and all four parties, which moved away from civil society while been in charge of running the state, are in a vulnerable situation. If the centrist and more pragmatic parties in that coalition (i.e. PRSD and/or the PDC) concede to Piñera and support his policy proposals in congress, the pacts, as we knew them, will be in disarray. That would nonetheless open room for a more radical renovation of center-left parties in the future.