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Cablegate: Chile's Municipal Elections: Who Is Likely to Win

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P 231949Z OCT 08
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UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 SANTIAGO 000950

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PREL CI
SUBJECT: CHILE'S MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS: WHO IS LIKELY TO WIN
AND WHY IT MATTERS

REF: A. SANTIAGO 581
B. SANTIAGO 894

1. (SBU) Summary: On Sunday, October 26, voters across
Chile will head to the polls to elect mayors and city council
members. These nationwide local elections come just a year
before the Chilean presidential election and are widely seen
as a bellwether of the strength of political parties and
presidential candidates. The ruling center-left Concertacion
coalition is widely expected to emerge victorious in the city
council and mayoral vote, but Alianza will likely improve on
their performance in 2004. Small gains by Alianza are
expected, but both sides are playing a lowered expectations
game. A substantial shift in either direction will generate
significant media buzz and would be a boost to conservative
hopes for a strong showing in next year's presidential and
congressional elections. End Summary.

Alianza to Improve on 2004 Performance, But by How Much?
--------------------------------------------- -----------

2. (SBU) Analysts from the right and left agree that in the
most important measure of electoral success--the percentage
of city council votes received by each coalition--Alianza
will improve on their 2004 performance but will still receive
fewer votes than the two Concertacion lists. (Note: See Ref
A for a discussion of Concertacion's divided election lists
this year. End Note.) The key question is how much Alianza
will be able to narrow the gap when compared to their dismal
performance in the 2004 municipal election, when they emerged
10 percentage points behind Concertacion (38 percent vs. 48
percent).

3. (SBU) Pundits from the left privately paint an optimistic
scenario where Concertacion sees minimal losses. In
conversations with Poloff Oct. 21 and 22, progressive think
tank director Maria de los Angeles Fernandez predicted a
minimum of eight points between Concertacion and Alianza,
while Socialist academic and commentator Alfredo Joignant
foresaw a seven or eight point lead by Concertacion. Both
analysts say Concertacion's success rests largely on whether
Party for Democracy (PPD) leader Pepe Auth's gamble in
withdrawing from the larger Concertacion coalition to run a
separate list for the PPD and Social Radicals (PRSD) will
draw in more voters as he predicted (see Ref B).

4. (SBU) Meanwhile, on the right, analysts expect more
substantial gains for the conservative Alianza coalition.
Jose Miguel Izquierdo of the National Renewal-affiliated
think tank Instituto Libertad told Poloff Oct. 17 a
resurgence of small parties, a decline in Concertacion
popularity, and a stronger, more united right will translate
into just a three or four point gap between Alianza and
Concertacion. Ena von Baer of the independent, conservative
Libertad y Desarrollo institute was more cautious about
specific numbers, but also believes the gap between the two
parties will narrow considerably. Alianza Presidential
candidate Sebastian Pinera told the Ambassador on October 27
that he expected a five point Concertacion victory.

5. (SBU) In public, politicians from both sides seem to have
learned from Alianza's disastrous 2004 experience of
predicting great gains only to face a very disappointing
reality on election day. Alianza politicians are publicly
downplaying expectations. Christian Democrat party president
(and presidential contender) Soledad Alvear has set the bar
for her own party rather low, promising only a 16% share of
the city council votes compared to 21% in 2004.

Who Cares About Local Elections Anyway?
---------------------------------------

6. (SBU) From an outside perspective, the buzz about this
weekend's municipal elections might seem to be much ado about
nothing. However, in Chilean national politics, municipal
elections matter. These local elections, held simultaneously
across the country just a year before presidential and
congressional elections, are seen as a referendum on the
performance of Chile's political parties. Conservative
analyst von Baer believes Alianza's overconfidence in 2004
doomed presidential contender Joaquin Lavin. Lavin had been
leading in the polls until the municipal elections, when his
party's disappointing performance caused his popularity to
dive while the percentage of voters who wanted to see
Bachelet elected doubled during the following year. Von Baer
was careful to caution she doesn't think this election will
have such a stark effect, but it will certainly set the stage
in an important way for presidential campaigns. In addition,
the elections have been "presidentialized" this year with

SANTIAGO 00000950 002 OF 002


presidential contenders campaigning for local candidates and
often appearing beside them in campaign posters, further
increasing their relevance to presidential politics.

7. (SBU) Controlling local politics can also be very helpful
in ensuring presidential candidates get favorable attention
in the upcoming election year. Serving as "allies in the
streets" (in the words of Instituto Libertad analyst Jose
Miguel Izquierdo), mayors can direct social spending in ways
likely to generate support for their party, invite
presidential nominees to local events, and control access to
billboards and signs along public streets.

8. (SBU) Finally, municipal election results are also
important and late-breaking inputs into decisions within
parties and coalitions about who to nominate for president
and how to divide power (and congressional candidates) among
different parties in each coalition. Within the center-left
Concertacion coalition, the Christian Democrats are widely
expected to garner a significantly reduced share of city
council votes, likely translating into fewer congressional
candidates and potentially creating an obstacle in Soledad
Alvear's presidential quest. On the other hand, if Pepe
Auth's two list bet pays off, the PPD could emerge as a much
stronger force within Concertacion. The Social Democrats
(PRSD), riding on PPD's coattails as their partners on the
divided Concertacion list, may also benefit. Meanwhile,
Alfredo Joignant has predicted that National Renewal (RN)
will pull ahead of the Democratic Union (UDI), requiring
adjustments in congressional candidates allocated within
Alianza.

9. (SBU) COMMENT: Chile's municipal elections provide an
important, if imperfect, glimpse into the mood of the voters
just one year from the country's presidential and
congressional elections. In addition to the obvious impact
on local governance, the results will help shape party
decisions about presidential and congressional nominees.
With the conservative Alianza coalition widely expected to
improve on their 2004 performance--but not overtake
Concertacion--the margin of Concertacion's advantage takes on
outsized importance. Also key will be how the respective
coalitions perform in the so-called "emblematic" races, the
high-profile mayoralities in Santiago and other major cities.
An only slight narrowing of Alianza's 10-point gap with
Concertacion could confirm that Concertacion is suffering
only a bit of unsurprising voter fatigue and can reasonably
expect to maintain its hold on power in 2009. However, a
sharper narrowing of Concertacion's lead would likely get
significant press attention and be seen as a strongly
negative assessment of the center-left coalition. END
COMMENT.
SIMONS

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