Latin America Advisor

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Will Newcomers Shake Up Chile’s Political System?

Gabriel Borić and Sebastián Sichel Gabriel Borić and Sebastián Sichel (L-R) defeated more experienced candidates this month in Chile’s presidential primary elections // File photo: Facebook Pages of Gabriel Borić and Sebastián Sichel

In upset victories, two political upstarts defeated more established candidates in Chile’s presidential primaries on July 18. Leftist lawmaker and former student leader Gabriel Borić, 35, defeated Santiago region Mayor Daniel Jadue. Meantime, former Banco del Estado President Sebastián Sichel, 43, defeated conservative Joaquín Lavín, a former mayor of Las Condes, for the nomination of the country’s center-right coalition. To what can Borić and Sichel attribute their victories? What are the main strengths and weaknesses of each candidate heading into the Nov. 21 election, and how might their relative youth change the face of traditional Chilean political parties and coalitions? What would a Borić or Sichel presidency mean for Chile’s business climate and foreign investment in the country?

Patricio Navia, clinical professor of liberal studies at New York University and professor of political science at Universidad Diego Portales in Chile: “The primaries resulted in the defeat of the two candidates who had led the polls for several months. The surprising winner in the right-wing coalition primary was Sebastián Sichel, a 43-year-old lawyer who previously was a member of the centrist Christian Democratic Party. Sichel will seek to present himself as a moderate right-winger, not associated with the military dictatorship—he was only 11 when the dictatorship ended—and who understands middle-class Chileans. But it will be difficult for him to distance himself from unpopular President Sebastián Piñera. Sichel campaigned for Piñera in 2017 and was a cabinet minister appointed after the social upheaval of 2019. Sichel’s leading funders are socially liberal business leaders. In a country where the dominant mood is an- ti-business, anti-right and anti-Piñera, Sichel has more liabilities than assets. Fortunately for him, the left-wing coalition might be too far to the left for the comfort of average Chilean voters. Gabriel Borić is a 35-year-old legislator who gained notoriety as a student leader. Borić espouses radical left-wing views, but he won largely because his rival, Communist Party Mayor Daniel Jadue, was even further to the left. Borić represents the dominant leftist views of many Chileans who wholeheartedly believe that a new constitution will deliver them to the promised land. Unfortunately for Chileans, the focus on redistribution is making people forget about promoting growth. Sichel will surely try to remind people that growth is necessary for distribution to succeed. Even if Sichel were to win the presidential election in November, the constitutional convention’s leftist priorities will make it difficult for him to govern. The new president takes office next March, but the constitutional convention will finish its work five months later. Though the primaries reduced the number of candidates in the race, the deadline to register candidates is Aug. 23. There are presently 21 independents collecting signatures online to register as candidates. The presidential race is just beginning. One lesson the July 18 primaries taught us is that being the front-runner does not guarantee anything this election season in Chile.”

Carla Alberti, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile: “Chile’s presidential primaries took place in an environment of severe societal discontent with the political establishment. In this context, both candidates can partly attribute their success to the fact that their political trajectories lie outside of traditional parties. Indeed, while Borić is part of a political coalition, the Frente Amplio, which proposes the renovation of traditional politics, Sichel has presented himself as an independent candidate. Additionally, for many, these candidates emerged as the moderate option within their respective coalitions. Regarding their strengths heading into the presidential election, Borić and the Frente Amplio represent renovation in the face of heavily delegitimized political parties. His trajectory as a student movement leader and advocate for demands that have strong support of ample sectors of society can help improve his electoral prospects. Sichel has also criticized traditional politics and emphasized his nonelite origins, which might provide him with an electoral advantage. Each candidate has also different potential weaknesses. Borić’s youth, and the fact that his coalition is relatively new, while an asset in the face of delegitimized traditional politics, might also be perceived as lack of experience in office. Sichel was a minister in the current government, whose very low approval rates might negatively affect his campaign. Lastly, both candidates have emphasized in their programs the importance of attracting foreign investment and promoting small businesses. However, one of the main differences is that Borić proposes a much more active role of the state in the economy.”

Beatrice Rangel, member of the Advisor board and director of AMLA Consulting in Miami Beach: “Both Borić and Sichel can attribute their victory to fatigue. For many years now, Chileans have yearned for new leadership. But it has been impossible for fresh young talent to break the founding generation’s intricate network of mutual support. That leadership created one of the most successful pro-democracy coalitions in the region, but it also acted as a dam holding back from the presidency new generations of very talented Chileans with superb education who have rendered valuable services in business, academia and government. The desire for renewed leadership was quite apparent with the rise in 2010 of Marco Enríquez-Ominami, who, in spite of his successful political campaign, was unable to break the founding generation’s monopoly. The outbreak of violence in October 2019 seems to have rung an alarm bell throughout Chilean society that the time had come to renew the leadership. Unfortunately for Latin America, our leaders seem to be blind to change until an upheaval. Sometimes such outbreaks destroy democracy, as in the case of Venezuela”

Peter M. Siavelis, professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University: “Upset victories in Chile’s July 18 presidential primaries sent conflicting messages about the state of Chile’s political game. One message is clear: Chileans want new and young faces at the helm, and disgust with political parties is palpable. Both winners are young political outsiders untethered to traditional parties. The other message is murkier, presaging a complex and uncertain presidential campaign. Results from the May 2021 Constituent Assembly elections stunned observers with sweeping victories for independents (almost 70 percent), a surge in the leftist vote and the routing of the two dominant post-authoritarian coalitions. This, along with Communist Jadue’s sustained lead in primary polls, suggested a dramatic left turn in Chilean politics. However, the primaries’ victors were the most moderate candidates of the sectors they represent, puzzling some analysts. If Borić’s victory is due to independent and conservative strategic voting to prevent Jadue’s victory, this could spell trouble for Borić if the far left stays home, resenting his moderate stance and participation in the constitutional process. The more moderate Sichel could be hurt by his lack of experience and perceived political opportunism, having begun his career as a Christian Democrat, worked for a conservative government and now running as an independent presidential candidate. An additional wild card remains: The traditional parties of the center-left have announced primaries slated for Aug. 21, with a likely victory for Christian Democratic Senate President Yasna Provoste, who has consistently strong polling numbers. Still, given disgust with traditional parties, the most likely scenario is a Borić-Sichel matchup going into a second round. However, likely scenarios have consistently been dashed in this recent cycle of prediction-defying Chilean elections.”

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