In an unsurprising electoral outcome,former President Michelle Bachelet(2006-2010) was elected this past Sunday, December 15, to become Chile’s next president. Bachelet was unable to secure a first round win in the mid-November elections, hence she and her closest opponent, Evelyn Matthei, were forced to a second electoral round.
If Matthei was hoping for some kind of Christmas miracle, it did not happen. By early Sunday evening, Matthei’s campaign headquarters were conceding defeat while there were reports thatcumbia, a popular Latin style of music, was blasting in Bachelet’s headquarters as her supporters celebrated the victory. The Chilean and international media briskly reported Bachelet’s comfortable win:62% to 37%. Not exactly a close call.
While the final results were not surprising, there is still one remarkable point from Sunday’s vote that should be noted: low voter turnout. During the November elections, which included electing a new president as well as most members of the country’s two-chamber Congress, voter turnout was just49% of Chile’s eligible 13.5 million voters. For the second leg of the elections, that number dropped to 41%. Chile’s population is a little over 16.6 million according toa 2012 census, so only 5.5 million voting in the second round is a fairly low percentage.
Probable reasons why voter turnout was so low included the population’s dissatisfaction with the candidates, as well as the widespread assumption that Bachelet was going to win; there was little incentive to vote.
It is worth noting that formerChilean President Ricardo Lagoscriticized the low turnout, and blamed Chile’s voluntary electoral system. The former president declared, “voting is a right, but it is also an obligation towards the country.” Likewise,Jose Miguel Insulza, a Chilean citizen who currently serves as the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, also argued that voluntary voting “was a mistake […] voting is a citizen’s duty.” Neither of these prominent Chileans directly stated that the Chilean government should make voting mandatory, but the sentiment is clearly implied.
It is doubtful that Bachelet will be in a particular hurry to change voting laws during her new presidential term. As discussed in aNovember analysis for Blouin News, the new head of state has an ambitious program which includes increasingcorporate taxes, constitutional reforms to change presidential term limits and greater investment in education. However, the extent to which she will be able to accomplish these objectives is debatable; asReuters explains, “despite losing seats in November’s Congressional elections, Alianza [the opposition coalition] still has a large enough majority to block at least electoral and constitutional changes.”
Moreover, her first foreign policy challenge will be amaritime dispute between Chile and Peru. The two countries have turned to the International Court of Justice in The Hague to get a ruling on what their maritime border should be. Depending on how the ICJ rules on the issue, a country could get a significant amount of maritime territory that could greatly help either nation’s fishing industry. The ICJ has announced that it will releaseits ruling on January 27, 2014. Current President Sebastian Piñera will still be head of state then (the changing of the guard in Chile will occur in March, 2014) but it is likely that Bachelet will meet with him to discuss the ruling, particularly if the ICJ votes in Peru’s favor.
Thanks to her victory, Bachelet once again joins an elite club offemale heads of state in Latin America, whose numbers are increasing. Apart from the Chilean president-elect, other female presidents in the region include Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in Argentina and Laura Chinchilla in Costa Rica. Leaving aside their different political ideologies, it is a positive development that more women are reaching the highest political office in their respective nations.
This is not to say thatmachismo, a historical stereotype of Latin Americans, is over. But the fact that there are more female presidents, and that the two principal candidates in Chile’s recent elections were women, is a sign of slow, but positive, cultural progress.