Chile's right wins big in local elections as political tides shift

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chile’s right snatched dozens of mayoralties on Sunday from the governing center-left coalition, in a boost to former leader Sebastian Pinera, the front-runner to lead the conservative coalition in next year’s presidential election.

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With over 99 percent of results counted on Sunday night in local elections, the right-leaning Chile Vamos pact emerged as the big winner. It won slightly more votes than President Michelle Bachelet’s left-leaning Nueva Mayoria coalition, despite the left going into the vote with a massive incumbent advantage.

Conservative candidates won the majority of key swing cities, including central Santiago, a municipality inside the capital that is considered an electoral bellwether.

“This reflects that residents are tired of incomplete promises,” the conservative mayor-elect of central Santiago, Felipe Alessandri, told Reuters. “Citizens have made their annoyance at the old practices of politicians clear, and they have made clear that they expect to be listened to.”

Voters have turned sour on Bachelet’s government after a series of corruption scandals, an ambitious reform drive that fell flat with many Chileans, and weak economic growth.

The results should benefit Pinera, a conservative politician and businessman who served as president from 2010 to 2014 between Bachelet’s two terms and is widely expected to seek a return to office.

“Sebastian Pinera is going to sleep with the presidential sash on tonight,” tweeted Patricio Navia, a political scientist at New York University and Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago. “What a beating for the Nueva Mayoria.”

The results were a further sign the political tide had shifted toward the right in Latin America, after electoral disappointments for left-wing candidates elsewhere in the region over the past year including in neighboring Argentina and Peru.

Independent parties - previously a non-player in Chilean politics - also outperformed, raising the possibility that Chile’s 26-year-old two-coalition system could rupture. An unaffiliated candidate won a shock upset in the mayor’s race in Valparaiso, one of Chile’s largest cities.

With disaffection with the entire political class running high, Sunday’s vote was also marked by relatively high abstention rates.

Bachelet, who is constitutionally barred from seeking re-election in 2017, lamented the low turnout in broadcast comments on Sunday night and acknowledged her coalition’s defeat.

“We are going to redouble our efforts to respond to the demands and dreams of our citizens ... this is a very serious message, not just for our coalition but all political leaders in the country.”

Reporting by Gram Slattery; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien, Peter Cooney and Christian Schmollinger