Chile elections: archaic voting system plays tricks on voters’ choice

Result in San Bernardo casts shadow over Chile’s “binominal” system after PRO candidate Marisela Santibañez is excluded from election despite winning the most votes in the district. PRO may appeal.

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Chile’s general elections took place this Sunday, 17th November. I’ll write a couple of articles here and there looking into what there is to be said about the results, what there is to look out for in the presidential run-off between Bachelet and Matthei on 15th December, etc etc. However, in the meantime I’ve just spotted something in the Chilean news that I thought was very interesting, and is a perfect example of the dysfunctional structure of Chile’s electoral system, which I have written about before and which also may have just seen its final election.

To quickly recap, the “binominal” system involves dual-member districts, and ensures that for a party/coalition (or “list” as they are known) to win both seats they have to receive double the amount of votes that their nearest rival earns. Even if both List A candidates receive more votes than either of the List B candidates, unless List A has outscored List B by more than 2:1, each list will return one candidate. Sunday’s election, however, has thrown up one of the system’s more peculiar scenarios.

Marco Enríquez-Ominami, who broke from the centre-left Concertación in 2009 to run as an independent candidate for the presidency, earning 20% of the vote, has since founded the Partido Progresista (PRO – Progressive Party). After he took roughly 11% of the vote, the PRO has now established itself as the country’s third political force, behind the centre-left Nueva Mayoría (New Majority) and centre-right Alianza (Alliance) coalitions. However, the binominal system, favouring pacts among large coalitions and the continuation of a dual-party system, would appear to have robbed MEO (as he is widely known) and the PRO of official representation in the Lower Chamber, after one of its candidates, Marisela Santibañez, received the most votes in District 30 (San Bernardo) in Maipo province, but was not elected.

Here’s why: Santibañez came top in the district with 26.7% of the votes. The second candidate in the PRO list, Nicolás Henríquez, managed just 1.25%, bringing the total PRO vote to 28%. However, the party was then outvoted by both the Nueva Mayoría and the Alianza, who received 34% (Leonardo Soto with 25% and David Morales 9%) and 30% (Jaime Bellolio 22% and Carlos Cruz-Coke 8%) respectively. Because of this, and in following with the rules of the binominal system, the two lists that came first and second – Nueva Mayoría and Alianza – return one candidate each, while the others are left with nothing, even though Santibañez was the most voted candidate in the district.

MEO has already announced that the PRO is considering formally disputing the result through an examination of the ballots cast in San Bernardo, with the party’s secretary general Camilo Lagos saying “I understand that about 10% of the polling booths are showing inconsistencies: votes with marks that have been classified as null and void, for example. We’re going over the ballots and if we are convinced that there are sufficient [spoiled votes] we will be challenging the result”. Meanwhile, Santibañez herself said she felt “anger towards a system that is incomprehensible”, and added that she considers herself to be “the people’s elected representative” and “hope[s] that this never happens again in Chile”.

PRO leader and presidential candidate Marco Enríquez-Ominami (L) and parliamentary candidate Marisela Santibañez (R)

She will surely not be alone in hoping this, and the efforts currently being carried out during the final months of President Sebastián Piñera’s government may well deliver if the country’s two main political forces can maintain the rare unity that has allowed such a comprehensive political reform to progress this far in Congress. Even if this process doesn’t bear fruit in the near-future, Michelle Bachelet’s likely victory in next month’s second round will lead to a new government that is determined to push through progressive reforms aimed at overhauling the country’s conservative voting system and more. The next government will also be marked by the fact that the Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI – Independent Democratic Union), the more right-wing party in the Alianza along with Renovación Nacional (RN – National Renewal), has come out of this election relatively badly, with its share in the next Lower House being reduced from 38 to 29 seats out of 120. RN has shown much more willingness to negotiate with the more moderate parties of the Concertación / Nueva Mayoría over issues such as electoral reform, and with the UDI’s capacity to veto such measures now weakened, proponents of progressive reform can take heart from the fact that it now holds less than a quarter of all seats (although Nueva Mayoría appears to have won around 68 seats, marginally below the threshold that would have represented the constitutional quorum allowing them to enact such key reforms without needing the support of other parties).

One thing is for sure though: if there was still any doubt as to the urgent need to change Chile’s voting system for one that is more representative, events in San Bernardo have surely provided the killer example. If a party placing itself as a progressive alternative to the country’s two mainstream coalitions is unable to gain democratic representation despite one of its candidates effectively winning its district’s election, how else are such archaic legacies from the authoritarian Pinochet regime to be overcome? It should act as a stark reminder of the changes that need to take place over the next four years if the crisis of faith in Chile’s main democratic parties, as shown by the massive protests since 2011 and the high abstention levels in this election (barely half the electorate turned out to vote), is to be solved.