Chile comes to its constitutional plebiscite on Sunday with a great unknown: how many people will go to the polls. 14.7 million citizens are summoned, but it is a country where electoral participation has decreased since the arrival of democracy in 1990: in the 2017 presidential elections, it did not exceed 50%.
Chile has one of the highest abstention rates in the region along with Colombia, a phenomenon that has worsened since voluntary voting debuted in 2012. Neither the covid-19 pandemic, which has not been controlled, nor the violence registered last Sunday, a week before the referendum, are elements that help to predict what will happen with what is considered the most important and symbolic electoral process that has been registered in Chile since 1988, when a plebiscite decided on the continuity of Augusto Pinochet.
“One of the main questions on Sunday is the level of participation. On the one hand, the polls indicate that there is a greater predisposition to vote compared to other elections, but in general polls with voluntary voting are not good predictors of behavior, ”says Marcela Ríos, assistant representative in Chile of the United Nations Program for Development (UNDP). “You vote in the context of a pandemic and, on the other hand, participation in general tends to be a little lower in plebiscites compared to regular elections. On this occasion, Chile will not vote by people, but by preferences, "explains Ríos, who for all these elements ensures that" it is difficult to predict the level of convocation. "
On Sunday, citizens over 18 years of age will decide whether to approve or reject the idea of changing the current Constitution of 1980, drawn up during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, which has undergone fifty reforms in the last three decades, in democracy. Citizens will be asked, at the same time, by the body that will draft it: if a constitutional convention made up of 155 citizens specially elected for that purpose or a mixed convention of 172 members, integrated in equal parts (50% and 50%) by parliamentarians.
Discussion has been opened in Chile about the legitimacy of this referendum if it did not reach certain levels of participation. It is important: although the agreement reached in November by the majority of the parties in Congress did not establish the requirement of a minimum participation – therefore, the referendum would be valid, in any case – it was the path that the political class The Chilean government offered the public to channel discontent, amid the complex weeks of the social unrest in October 2019, a year ago. What happens on Sunday with regard to attendance at the polls will show the spirit of society to join the institutional path. Especially the young people, who started the protests and have been the spearhead of the mobilizations.
The UNDP assistant representative in Chile indicates that the majority of those summoned to the polls "have never voted in a plebiscite." The international organization indicates that, of the people of age to vote today, 57.9% could not vote in 1988. Ríos also speaks of a "structural abstentionism." Turnout fell from 87% in 1989 to 50% in the second presidential round of 2017, with a record low of 36% in the 2016 municipal elections. According to the UNDP, Chile stands out for its low electoral participation compared to other countries of the region and the OECD and even if it is compared with the average participation in countries with voluntary voting, which reaches 59%.
Voters at health risk
“The conditions of the health crisis are not necessarily the best, because the elderly, at risk from the pandemic, are the ones who vote the most in Chile. If these frequent and disciplined voters stop going to the polls, it could affect total participation, unless it is compensated with a significant increase in young people, who were voting little, ”explains Ríos. According to the UNDP, those between 50 and 64 years old participated 62% in the 2017 parliamentary and presidential elections, while those between 65 and 79 attended 67%. In contrast, only 35% of citizens between 18 and 24 years old went to the polls three years ago. "It will be important to know if young people give a vote of confidence to this process and go out to vote en masse, unlike what they had been doing," he says.
For the political analyst Kenneth Bunker, director of Tres Quintos, who studies elections and politics, “looking at the last year, at the beginning the polls showed between 70% and 90% of people who were going to participate in the process and, as time has passed, that number has dropped and has been stagnant for a couple of months between 50% and 60% ”. "That is," he adds, "the level of participation in the plebiscite should be slightly above half of the roll, which is made up of all Chileans of voting age." This decrease is explained both by the effect of the pandemic and by the postponement that the referendum suffered from last April to October due to the health crisis.
Although a voluntary vote weakens the predictive power of the polls, the polls indicate that the option of those who want to change the Constitution would win between 69% and 85.4%, according to Tres Quintos. For the constitutional convention, the range would be, according to the same source, between 57.6% and 70.5%. Along with giving central importance to the participation of young people, precisely those who took to the streets in recent months, the analyst speaks of the 50% barrier: “Symbolically, if we have a plebiscite in which fewer people participate than in the last presidential election, I would realize that citizens do not like this constitutional process very much and that they do not consider that it will be the solution to the problems ”.
Voting in a pandemic
Daniel Zovatto, regional director of International IDEA, one of the organizations that has followed in detail the electoral processes of the world in the midst of the covid-19 crisis, “the pandemic in Latin America has not necessarily been associated with a generalized fall in electoral participation ”. "On the contrary, it has either remained at very high levels or it has increased a little," adds Zovatto.
According to data from International IDEA, in the context of the pandemic, four elections have been held in the region. The first, the presidential elections in the Dominican Republic on July 5, where there was a 55.29% participation, when in 2016 it was 69.60%. The other presidential was in Bolivia, last Sunday, where it remained at 88%, but under a mandatory voting regime. In Uruguay, municipal and departmental elections were held on September 27, with 85% participation (it was 88.18% in 2015). In the local elections of Coahuila and Hidalgo, in Mexico, the turnout even grew on October 18: from an average 45% to 49% participation.