Is voting a right or an obligation? The recent presidential primaries in Chile, which were held this past July 1, incited debate regarding a citizen’s duties once election time rolls around. These elections are an important electoral milestone as they mark the first time that voting for the president will not be mandatory. Despite the high level of international interest in the upcoming presidential election in the Southern Cone country, only one-fifth of the Chilean citizenry cast their ballots for the selection of their next leader.
Unsurprisingly, former president Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010) won the candidacy for the center-left coalition Concertación, while Pablo Longueira was selected to represent the conservative Alianza por Chile coalition. The low voter turnout suggests that Chileans are both skeptical as to whether the mainstream candidates will bring substantial change and wary of partaking in the country’s constrictive political system.
Elections are being closely watched due to the recent change to the voting system. Previously, voter registration was optional, but registered voters were required to submit ballots or else face steep fines. However, in 2009, President Sebastián Piñera changed the voting system to involve automatic registration and optional voting. The overhaul of the system did not occur seamlessly; about 1,000 names of “disappeared” people (individuals abducted during the Pinochet dictatorship) appeared on the voter registration roll as they were still technically alive.
The new system was first used in October of 2012, when only 40 percent of registered voters showed up to cast a ballot in municipal elections. Piñera expressed deep disappointment with the results, stating, “With freedom comes duties…Many Chileans decided not to exercise their right nor their duty to participate in these elections.” The primaries held at the beginning of this month did not indicate any improvement, with a voter turnout of roughly 20 percent. While this statistic is due in part to the general expectation that Bachelet would be a shoo-in for candidacy, as well as Chile’s failure to provide citizens living abroad with the option to cast absentee ballots, it still suggests that Chileans do not vote when they are not required to do so. In comparison, the United States displays similar levels of voter apathy; voter turnout during the 2012 presidential primaries ranged from 0.3 to 31.1 percent depending on the state.
The results from the July 1 primaries demonstrate Chileans’ widespread disillusionment regarding the realm of politics. In recent years, Chile has benefited from a booming economy and increased prosperity, yet the country remains one of the most unequal in the hemisphere. Chilean students have been organizing mass demonstrations since February, demanding universal access to education. While Longueira has not proposed any reform to the current education system, Bachelet hopes to establish two free universities in regions lacking higher education opportunities and to work towards the realization of free, universal education. However, student movement leaders are pessimistic of these promises, as Bachelet was in office during the last breakout of student protests in 2006 and failed to reform the old system. Felipe Muñoz, a spokesperson for the Student Federation of Private Universities (MESUP) told the Santiago Times, “The truth is no candidate supports the movement.” Most students are either choosing to vote for candidates from minority parties or simply not voting at all.
Aside from education, other hot topics for the upcoming election include tax reform, constitutional reform, energy reform, military spending, and abortion (particularly after Chile’s recent refusal to permit a raped 11-year-old girl to get an operation). Bachelet is the clear favorite going forward, having won more than 1.5 out of the 3 million votes cast in the primary (in comparison, Longueira received 413,000 votes). Recent polls predict Bachelet leading by 11 percentage points.
Despite Bachelet’s likely victory in the upcoming November presidential elections, doubts remain as to how enthusiastic Chileans are about any of the candidates. The low voter turnout at the primaries suggests that Chileans’ frustration may be not be easily solved by a new president. In the upcoming months, Chile will serve as an indicator of whether alternative forms of political participation, such as the massive student demonstrations, are more effective than working within the system to enact change.