November 6, 2017 / 5:57 PM / in a month

Low turnout in Chile election could hand victory to Pinera

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - The frontrunner for Chile’s presidency, billionaire businessman Sebastian Pinera, faces an array of left-wing parties in this year’s elections but he can expect help from one quarter - low turnout.

Recent opinion polls give Pinera, a conservative former president, a commanding lead over his seven mostly left-of-center rivals for the Nov. 19 first round but predict he is unlikely to take the more than 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off.

While a unified left might muster the votes to defeat Pinera in the second round, weak turnout fed by disenchantment with politics and interparty bickering would pave the way for a Pinera win.

“It’s likely that many left-wing voters are not going to vote in the second round because their candidate will have been eliminated, and with this drop, Pinera’s vote share catapults,” said analyst Kenneth Bunker, of Tresquintos.

“Pinera is going to win if fewer people vote.”

Investors strongly favor Pinera and bet he would better manage labor and education reforms implemented by current center-left President Michelle Bachelet, in power since 2014.

Chile, South America’s most developed economy, is one of the few countries in the region that does not have mandatory voting.

Turnout in the elections following Chile’s transition from compulsory to voluntary voting in 2012 has dipped as low as 42 percent, near the bottom of developed countries, according to statistics from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

Many Chileans are disenchanted with politics following campaign finance scandals that have tainted parties of both the right and left. Unlike citizens of Brazil, Peru and Argentina, they have the right to abstain without repercussions.

A recent CEP poll, conducted in September and October, found that only 43 percent of Chileans are likely to vote in the coming election.

Chilean presidential candidates attend a live televised debate, (L-R) Sebastian Pinera from "Chile Vamos" (Let's Go Chile) coalition, Alejandro Guillier from government coalition and Beatriz Sanchez from "Frente Amplio" (Wide Front) coalition, in Santiago, Chile November 6, 2017. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

The poll showed Pinera would beat his two closest contenders, the center-left Alejandro Guillier and leftist Beatriz Sanchez, in a Dec. 17 runoff.

SEARCHING FOR THE CENTER

Coalitions of Chile’s center-left parties for decades dominated politics but have fractured in the face of disagreements over Bachelet’s economic and social reforms.

The CEP poll found that only 11 percent of voters sympathize with Bachelet’s Nueva Mayoria coalition and nearly 60 percent of Chileans did not identify with any of the major political parties.

Slideshow (7 Images)

Pinera’s campaign has sought to capitalize on growing discontent and division among the left by appealing to centrist Christian Democratic voters, historically the largest bloc within Bachelet’s coalition.

Pinera recently called former President Patricio Aylwin, a Christian Democrat credited with smoothing Chile’s transition to democracy in the 1990s, an “example to follow.”

Candidates on the left have sought to counteract Pinera’s advances by attempting to rally new voters.

“We need a program that makes sense for everyone. If voter participation increases, we win,” said center-left frontrunner Guillier, a former journalist and legislator.

In late October, Bachelet’s administration launched a get-out-the-vote campaign of television and radio advertisements, calling the election “an important moment for our democracy.”

Pinera has criticized the campaign as a political maneuver, but Maria Luisa Puig, of the Eurasia Group, said that motivating a large remaining block of undecided, or uninspired, voters in the center of the political spectrum could prove critical to both sides.

“Voter turnout will be the key to this election,” she said.

Reporting by Dave Sherwood and Antonio De la Jara; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Richard Chang

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