In the first democratic elections for regional governors in Chile, held on Sunday June 13, only 19.6% of those called participated (2.5 of the 13 million). It was a historic low, although it did not surprise the experts: since the 1988 plebiscite that sealed the fate of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, participation in the elections has declined steadily.
In 2012, when the voluntary vote came into effect, the trend was already evident; barely 36% participated in the 2016 municipal elections, the record for low participation so far. The apathy of the majority of citizens is explained by structural and conjunctural phenomena, such as the pandemic. But it draws attention in a country that is carrying out an unprecedented constituent process pushed precisely by social mobilization, which put the institutionality on the ropes with the revolts of October 2019.
Sociologist Octavio Avendaño, doctor in Political Science, says that Chilean society is marked by “apoliticism.” “In 2019 there were mobilizations, stoppages and strikes in many territories of the country, even in remote places. But it is wrong to think that it involved the entire population as a whole. Those who joined the change process are part of a minority segment, while the rest are not interested in anything “, explains the academic from the University of Chile. Avendaño recalls that 48 hours before Sunday’s elections, people made long lines outside the main shopping centers of Santiago, to anticipate the confinement that began that weekend: “The political class and the progressive sectors do not want to recognize that there are social expectations that are not related to the structural change for an egalitarian society, as some would like, but the common Chilean bet to have greater opportunities in the market ”, assures Avendaño.
The process of profound changes that Chile is carrying out is carried out “under conditions of institutional precariousness”, without strong parties or representative organizations, such as unions, professional associations and student federations. This explains, according to the academic, the volatile nature of the political scene. “It changes every day, week to week,” he says on the Chilean political map.
The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has studied the factors that lead Chile to these indices of low citizen participation, such as problems of representation, mistrust in the system and lack of information. Marcela Ríos, coordinator of the governance area in the UNDP Chile office, says that “the political activation that has caused the constituent process does not necessarily translate to the usual election of authorities.” Give a piece of information: in the plebiscite of October 2020, where the option to replace the current Constitution won with 80%, the participation of sectors such as young people 18 to 29 increased, but, at the same time, those older than 50 years, who were the faithful participants, probably because of the pandemic.
Ríos points to the organization of the elections and the problems that must be faced in this matter. “Never before have we had such a bulky electoral calendar, with so many elections together,” explains the sociologist about the ten elections that Chile was imposed between last May and next November, when the presidential elections are held.
Additionally, Ríos assures, there are no mechanisms that encourage participation, such as early voting, postal suffrage and facilities for people with mobility problems. “The electoral roll is rigid and citizens cannot choose the polling place. We have an unfriendly electoral system that forces people to move since members of the same family have to move to different places in order to be able to vote, often far from their home, ”says the UNDP expert. “On top of that, the pandemic does not ease up. In several regions, including the capital, shortly before the election of governors an announcement of new quarantines was made, with the hospital system on the brink of collapse. “
Nor did it help Sunday’s participation that it was an election of governors, a relevant position because it aims to decentralize Chile, but unknown to a good part of the population. “There was little information from the state and political parties, especially concerned about the presidential, as well as the media,” says Ríos. And, again, the differences in participation between the rich and poor were repeated. In Vitacura, a wealthy area of the capital, 52.82% of those summoned went to the polls. In the popular La Pintana, on the other hand, 16.07%. The same happened between the regions. In Antofagasta, in the north, only 12.2% of the register attended. In Santiago, meanwhile, 25.70%. For many experts it was a great paradox that an election of governors that aims to diminish the deep centralism of Chile, of the 2.5 million voters, 1.5 have been residents of the capital.
Javier Sajuria, director of the study center Public space, characterizes Chileans who do not vote or who say in polls that they do not vote: “They tend to be less politicized, identify less with the left-right and political parties, and have less interest and opinion.” For Sajuria, who interviewed candidates for the constitutional convention, especially from urban popular segments, “the applicants spoke of poor segments of the population that have never voted and whose relationship with political institutions does not exist, so they do not feel that there is neither a gain nor a loss in the process ”. It points to a central issue: if a citizen is not used to voting, it is difficult for them to acquire the habit later.
The editor of the academic journal Politics adds a key element: the role of political leaders. “It is less complex to make those who support your opponents not vote than to mobilize people to vote for your own option,” he assures about negative campaigns. “Therefore, although the system does not like that few people vote, the political parties know that demobilizing is better,” says Sajuria about what he calls “perverse incentives.”
The low electoral participation of Chileans has led Parliament to push a project to reinstate the compulsory vote, which already has half a sanction in Deputies. It is a measure that, in the opinion of the experts, is not enough if it is not accompanied by other initiatives. “Chile needs a robust, broad and systematic agenda to promote participation. It is necessary to work on the relationship between citizens and institutions and an agenda to facilitate suffrage, ”says Ríos from UNDP.
For the sociologist Avendaño, a firm supporter of compulsory voting, this measure comes late. “Today it is a double-edged sword, because we do not know what will mobilize the 60% or 50% who have not voted regularly. It would be good to know, without a doubt, but they could opt for solutions of a populist or authoritarian type ”.
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