Scandals and Confusion Overshadow Chile Municipal Elections

(Bloomberg) -- The state of Chilean politics will be determined on Sunday not by which coalition most people vote for in the municipal elections, but by how many can be bothered to vote at all.

Funding scandals have tarnished the reputation of almost all political parties, while politicians are struggling to respond to the slowest three years of growth since the early 1980s. At the same time, new regulations have limited political propaganda on the streets and almost half a million voters have been registered at the wrong address, forcing the departure of Justice Minister Javiera Blanco on Wednesday. The result -- cynicism, confusion and apathy.

"I won’t vote because they made a mistake and I’m registered in another city," said Raul Navarro, a 52 year old taxi driver in Santiago. "But I wasn’t going to vote anyway because I don’t like any of the candidates, all politicians are bad and you can’t believe any of them."
That disaffection with politicians comes at a time of mounting social demands. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in August to call for better pensions, a few years after similar protests by students demanded free education for all -- a policy that is only gradually being implemented. Voters remain interested in change; what they don’t care for are the parties that have defined Chilean politics since the return to democracy 26 years ago.

Scandals and Confusion Overshadow Chile Municipal Elections

"I used to vote for the Christian Democratic Party, but I don’t anymore,” said Ricardo Valdivia, who at 66 still has to work to supplement his meager pension. “I can’t retire yet, but I retired from voting a long time ago.”

Street Scene

"Candidates are choosing not to identify with their political parties so they don’t get hurt by low popularity and low legitimacy," said Robert Funk, a political analyst at Universidad de Chile. "Everyone -- voters, the media and politicians -- is contributing to undermine political parties’ legitimacy and this damages the quality of our democracy."

The funding scandals, in which leading businessmen allegedly financed political parties through fake receipts for work that was never carried out, led the government to try and clean up politics. A law passed last year tightened up regulation on funding, ensured greater transparency over the finances of politicians and clamped down on political propaganda.

The streets in many neighborhoods of Santiago are devoid of political posters after the new regulations banned candidates from plastering their photos over every available wall or hanging them from cables.

"It’s amazing to see how clean streets and public spaces are," President Michelle Bachelet said earlier this month. "My only worry is that people know that there are elections and that they vote."

It is a legitimate concern. Voter turnout has fallen steadily to only 43 percent in the 2013 presidential election from 83 percent in 1990, with many analysts expecting a further decline this weekend. While, the turnout is unlikely to be much lower than participation rates in local elections in the U.S. and some European countries, it is traditionally higher in Chile, which only returned to democracy after a military dictatorship in 1990. 

"Any number below the last elections’ participation rate should immediately become a source of worry," said government spokesman Marcelo Diaz. "The weight of the responsibility is on politicians, we can’t blame people for not casting their vote."

Whether that worry translates into fundamental political change is yet to be seen. It may just convince some politicians to reimpose obligatory voting and leave the parties and coalitions untouched, Funk said.