Chile election update: Electoral reform and worrying poll figures for Matthei

Here is a quick update on the election campaign and developments in Congress in Chile, with just one month to go until the first round of voting on 17 November.

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In my piece last week about the contest, I mentioned the prospect of a reform to the country’s “binominal” electoral system, whereby two-seat districts have ensured the survival of a two-party system and parliamentary representation of close to 50% for the Right, despite the fact that they have generally garnered far fewer votes, thus preventing democratic governments from carrying out changes to the constitution written during the Pinochet dictatorship.

What I had forgotten is that, far from waiting for the likely victory of Michelle Bachelet in the presidential elections and her new government from March next year, the more moderate parties of the two main coalitions – the Partido Demócrata Cristiano (DC – Christian Democrats) of the centre-left Concertación coalition and Renovación Nacional (RN – National Renewal) of the centre-right Alianza – had agreed to push forward a reform in Congress before the election. On 15 October, a bill was passed in the Chamber of Deputies to eliminate the constitutional clause that limits the number of lower house members to 120, representing 60 two-seat electoral districts. The motion, which had already been approved by the Senate, was carried with 75 votes in favour to 31 against, with only the RN’s more conservative Alianza partners, the Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI – Independent Democratic Union), offering any opposition. The alliance between the parties of the Concertación and RN meant that the 60% of votes required to enact constitutional change were attained: just, with the threshold being 72 (out of 120).

However, before proponents of electoral reform in Chile get too excited over the recent developments, the bill does not spell the end of the binominal system, but rather can be seen as an encouraging first step in the right direction. The changes certainly won’t apply for next month’s elections, even if the bill does pass its second reading in the Chamber of Deputies after the 17 November election. Furthermore, so far the only thing being agreed on is the elimination of the 120-member ceiling and current electoral layouts, with the idea being that a further debate and reform to the system can be taken from there during the next government. Any such reforms would deal with the question of how to design the new electoral system, with one proposal put forward by the Concertación and RN being a rise in the number of deputies to 134, with these being elected by proportional representation from a reduced number (28) of districts, each of which would return between 3 and 8 deputies.

The start of the official election campaign one month before the first round of voting means that no further action on the bill will take place this side of the 17 November vote, but if all goes well the reform will be signed sealed and delivered before the start of the next government in March 2014. Then the debate can turn to exactly how to reshape Chile’s electoral system, which has been distorted and shut off to minority political voices for so long.

In other news, it goes from bad to worse for the ruling Alianza’s presidential candidate, Evelyn Matthei. In the most recent poll available (Chile tends not to see many opinion polls in the run-up to elections), Michelle Bachelet remained firmly in the lead with 37.7%, while Matthei was clinging on to second place with just 12.3%, closely followed by the independent candidate Franco Parisi on 10.6%. Marco Enríquez-Ominami was fourth with 7%, with Marcel Claude on 3.8%. The remaining four candidates failed to earn more than 1% each in the poll, carried out by the Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago, while 15.9% said they would not vote for any candidate and 11.2% either said they did not know or did not answer.

While the result of the poll seemingly reaffirms what we already knew – that Bachelet is looking very likely to win, but that she will have to wait until a second-round run-off contest against the second-placed candidate – what is becoming intriguing is the prospect of the current government’s candidate being knocked out in the first round, with Bachelet facing Parisi in the 15 December run-off. Already, Parisi seems to be on course to repeat the trick performed by Enríquez-Ominami at the last election in 2009, although that time it was the other way round: an independent leftist candidate sucking votes from the then-ruling Concertación’s candidate Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle by taking 20% of the first-round vote. Matthei and the Alianza seem unable to buy a vote at the moment, and while privately they may have accepted certain defeat at the hands of the popular former president a while ago, being beaten by an independent candidate placed on a relatively similar spot on the ideological spectrum would surely constitute a major embarrassment.