This Sunday, Chile will elect its next President. Two names will be on the ticket, both options of the past: billionaire former President Sebastián Piñera, leader of the conservative coalition Chile Vamos, will face Alejandro Guillier, a TV journalist and self-styled ‘outsider’ who represents the ruling centre-left alliance, Nueva Mayoria. Crackdowns on campaign spending as a result of numerous financing scandals on both sides of the political spectrum have reportedly failed to give an impression of integrity. Voter turnout during the election’s first round in November hit a new low with just 46.7% of registered voters casting a ballot.

Has familiarity bred contempt? The terse response to both coalition forces which have dominated Chilean politics since sitting President Michele Bachelet started her first term in 2006 suggests so – Piñera’s 36% vote share may have been enough to win the first round, but it is a significantly less emphatic victory than what pollsters predicted.

Chile’s reputation for prosperity and stability, it is perhaps unexpected that public sentiment towards the government is so deflated. What carries further is the country’s business-friendly negotiation of free trade agreements with many different countries, remarkable safety in a region known for endemic violent crime and a ‘European feel’ atypical to most of Latin America, referred to in travel guides aware of what that evokes to a Western readership.

All of these traits are true – the first two are backed by data, and influence the latter. They just don’t explain a disengaged electorate.  To understand that, drop the ‘for Latin America’ caveat that positions Chile as a regional outlier without properly considering its unique society. The country’s advanced development for the region is well-recognised, but take into account how Chile performs in the developed world it is cast as a part of. Chile is the one South American nation to have joined OECD – a marker of high developmental standards – yet the same organisation reports that 82% of Chileans feel that corruption is widespread in their government, way above the OECD average of 56%.

Historical context can help us understand Chileans wariness towards government, despite recognised economic potential. There is a curious, cruel consensus that the country’s economic success is one half of the military dictatorship’s traumatic legacy. General Pinochet’s 17-year reign is as synonymous with neoliberal reforms as it is with ‘disappearances’. Aggressive reductions on trade barriers, deregulation and sweeping privatisation of public services laid a free-market embracing framework which has cascaded down through each new government. Pinochet’s early adoption of such policies resulted in deep wealth inequality rather than widespread prosperity: by the end of the regime around 45% of Chilean families lived below the poverty line. It was the following Alywin government that took Chile to a more consistent average GDP of 7.7% between 1991 and 1997, all the while balancing Pinochet’s initiatives with boosted education and healthcare spending.

What Pinochet did manage to finance, by fear and by fortune, was docility. Journalist Tina Rosenberg, recounting her research into cultures of violence in Latin America, tells the stories of several Chileans who learned to survive the regime by politically ‘falling asleep’. One man, a college student and supporter of Pinochet’s socialist predecessor, Salvador Allende, went into hiding after the coup and emerged finding his family’s clothing business thriving. Getting involved for himself, he bought a new car every year, a new TV set every year and a couple of new VCRs. Only when the economy crashed nine years later in 1982 did he let himself acknowledge that the state had detained, tortured and murdered thousands of people in that time.

Rosenberg, the journalist, also met with Orlando Saenz, an economic minister for Pinochet who quit in 1974, guilt mounting over the government’s human rights violations. Years later, Pinochet’s press agent hit back at him that any claims of ‘human rights violations’ were just slander from the left: no one had been kidnapped or tortured, as the rumours say. Saenz tells her he knew someone – his then-girlfriend’s sister-in-law – who disappeared. He eventually managed to pull enough strings to find the sister-in-law, hidden, beaten and tortured, and arranged for his girlfriend to visit. Hearing this, the press agent begins to cry as Saenz tells her:

‘I’m surprised you don’t remember.’ She was his girlfriend; that was her sister-in-law. More tears fall. ‘Would you believe me if I told you that I forgot? These years have been very good to me and I’m a very appreciative person, and part of my appreciation is forgetting that this happened.’

Death squads no longer hunt the streets for ‘subversives’. Santiago’s National Soccer Stadium, host to huge-scale sports and music events, has been renovated twice since its use as a concentration camp. Sluggish GDP growth after the downturn of copper, Chile’s prime natural resource, means the economic consensus that whipped people into line no longer applies. Now, those once asleep are stirring, and Chileans reconcile with their memories by acting on them. Two criminal sentences this year – including the largest mass sentence for human rights abuses from the Pinochet era – point to an increasing push from legal authorities to bring criminals from the junta to retribution.

One relic of the regime that has proved harder to overturn is Pinochet’s constitution. While President Bachelet scored a key win earlier this year by passing a reform to legalise abortion under certain circumstances, the victories end there. Since 1980, the constitution has withstood over 200 amendments without substantial guarantees for the issues that have driven Chileans to the streets in protests during this election cycle.

On education, indebted students have rallied against the country’s exorbitant tuition fees. Currently, forty percent of students at public universities receive grants that enable them to study for free. There is little consensus about how to proceed: Nueva Mayoria has pledged to increase this to sixty percent – a figure considered too mild by left-wing Frente Amplio and an irresponsible expense by Piñera’s Chile Vamos. The latter’s push for guaranteed student loans over widespread subsidies has in turn attracted criticism from both left-leaning factions as only further imperilling those in debt. Pension funds, while worth around seventy percent of Chile’s GDP, have disappointed those across the political spectrum for their low average pay-out (around $300 per month – lower than minimum wage) with little unity over a future approach.

As Chilean legal scholar Jorge Contesse explains, the junta’s constitution affirmed Chileans’ rights only in in abstract. Equality, freedom of expression, privacy and utmost economic liberties were preached without the assurance of systems that provide for the average citizen – the right to choose which schools to attend, which doctor to see or where to invest your pension without the right to actually have education, healthcare or a pension. To the silent majority of the country’s first election round, long-entrenched in a Chile that belongs to the highest bidders, it may seem that any solution offered by the main coalitions that works within this constitution does nothing to change that.

It took a couple of weeks after the first-round vote for the first accusations of spoiled ballots to surface. Similar claims have rocked the election in Honduras, resulting in police curfews, fatal protests and political deadlock. Chile, however, stays quiet and grits its teeth. It is, after all, an apt reaction for Latin America’s most stable country, scarred with dejection and cynicism if not violence. While Sebastian Piñera remains the favourite to win the Presidency, a surprise alliance between La Nueva Mayoria and Frente Amplio could puncture what pundits predict to be Latin America’s next turn to the right. Two shades of familiarity await Chile, and it will not fall asleep under either.

About the author

NIK MCNALLY writes on international relations and the intersection of culture and politics, particularly in the Americas and Middle East.