Chile will this weekend vote in the legislators who will draw up its new constitution, with the country’s centre-right government facing a battle to maintain its grip on power ahead of a presidential election in November.
Gubernatorial, mayoral and municipal polls that were postponed because of the pandemic will also take place on Saturday and Sunday, alongside the election to populate the constitutional assembly.
Chile has not been spared the coronavirus second wave that has hit Latin America despite it having the highest vaccination rates in the region. Confirmed infections reached their highest ever level last month, although numbers have since declined.
“Chile is doing several historic and unprecedented things at the same time . . . in the middle of the economic and health crisis brought on by Covid-19,” said Robert Funk, a political scientist.
The most important vote will select members of the constituent assembly charged with rewriting the constitution drawn up during the 1973-90 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet — which most Chileans regard as illegitimate.
Nearly four-fifths of voters opted in favour of reforming the constitution in a referendum in November.
“These elections will probably define Chile’s institutional course over the coming decades,” said Gloria de la Fuente of Chile’s transparency council. “The vote will have a profound effect on Chile’s political system and civil society . . . electing the authorities to bring the country’s agenda forward.”
Yet turnover is predicted to be lower than the referendum. Some 58 per cent of Chileans who took part in a recent Ipsos poll said they were less likely to vote due to the pandemic, while less than half knew they would be voting for four different positions.
Chile has in recent decades become one of Latin America’s wealthiest nations, even if the deep inequality that sparked widespread social unrest in 2019 is far from resolved.
The low approval ratings for President Sebastián Piñera since those demonstrations have been exacerbated by defeats for his government in Congress, notably over pensions reform.
While the leftwing coalition that dominated Chile for most of the past 30 years has disintegrated since Piñera returned to power in 2018, his unpopularity could allow the left and centre-left to secure the two-thirds majority in the constituent assembly required to pass each article of the new document.
“If the right gets more than 30 per cent [in the assembly], it will be a tremendous victory,” said Lucia Dammert, a sociologist at the University of Santiago.
Despite the relative success of its vaccine rollout, Chile has been hard hit by the coronavirus crisis. Last summer’s peak of a weekly average of 352 daily cases per million was surpassed last month, reaching 383. Cases have since fallen back to about 280 cases per million.
However, Piñera’s government has been able to offer more generous Covid-related subsidies than most other countries in the region.
A feature of this weekend’s polls has been the emergence of independent candidates, Dammert said. Yet although the traditional parties had been badly wounded by the political turmoil, it would be “an uphill battle” for the independents to gain recognition, she said.
There are also wild cards such as Pablo Maltes — husband of Pamela Jiles, a populist presidential hopeful — who is running for governor of the metropolitan region of the capital Santiago.
“If Maltes wins, then there’s definitely something going on with Jiles,” said Funk, as it would suggest she was a strong contender for the presidency.
Jiles, who has championed measures to withdraw funds from Chile’s vaunted private pension system, is one of a number of presidential hopefuls, with no single candidate on the right or left enjoying a clear lead.
Electoral reform under the previous leftwing government of Michelle Bachelet that increased proportional representation means Chileans will for the first time also elect regional governors in a country where power has traditionally resided firmly in Santiago. The elections will also renew nearly a third of local authorities.