Right Wins, Left Loses in Chile, Venezuela Polls

Chilean presidential candidate Jose Antonio Kast from the far-right Republican Party meets with supporters during a campaign rally, ahead of the December 19 second round presidential elections, at Calera de Tango area, on the outskirts of Santiago, Chile, November 22, 2021. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado
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SANTIAGO, Nov 22 (Reuters) – After years of divisive street protests and the election of a mainly left-wing body to rewrite the constitution, Chileans surprised analysts, markets and even themselves on Sunday night by favoring a right-wing presidential candidate and delivering significant gains to conservatives in Congress.

With 99.99% of votes counted as of Monday, ultra-conservative former congressman Jose Antonio Kast had won 27.91%, and leftist lawmaker Gabriel Boric had come in second, with 25.83%. As both fell well short of the 50% threshold needed to win outright, they will now advance to a Dec. 19 runoff.

Kast, who has pledged to crack down on crime and illegal immigration, appears to have the momentum, though Boric can still eke out a victory if he wins over enough centrists, analysts said.

Still, the results of congressional elections may make the radical changes to Chile’s free-market model that Boric has promised out of reach. Leftist and center-left coalitions lost significant ground in both the upper and lower houses, and no coalition is expected to emerge with a functioning majority.

“It’s going to be very difficult for any of the two major coalitions in the Senate to pass legislation,” said Kenneth Bunker, head of political consultancy Tresquintos.

“For the conservative sectors, this is not a problem as they are in favor of the status quo, but for the opposition it is very bad news.”

Just six months ago, Chileans had favored left-wing independents when selecting representatives to the body charged with rewriting the nation’s dictatorship-era constitution. Boric, a 35-year-old who rose to fame leading student protests, has thrown his support behind the constitutional rewrite.

But crime fears, ongoing confrontations between police and separatist indigenous groups in the nation’s south and fatigue with continued protests and disorder in what is traditionally one of Latin America’s most stable countries likely played a role in the swing to the right, analysts said.

“What’s happening in the south, combined with crime and the general idea of change without really knowing what changes will be made caused a significant portion of the population to turn against Boric,” said Miguel Angel Lopez, a professor at the University of Chile.

While some recent opinion polls had shown Kast gaining ground, many Chileans and political observers did not expect him to do as well as he did, given the country’s leftward turn in recent years.

“It seems sad to me, sad after everything that has happened to the country,” Salvador Carrasco, a musician in central Santiago, said on Monday morning.

Chile’s benchmark IPSA equities index (.SPIPSA) was up over 10%, while the country’s peso currency gained ground against the dollar overnight.

The rally in the peso was due to relief that Congress was split, which will act as a moderating force if Boric wins, said Mary-Therese Barton, Head of Emerging Debt at Pictet Asset Management.

“Markets’ first reaction has certainly been positive. It’s less to do with the presidential side and more to do with Congress,” she said.

In the presidential runoff, eyes will now be on how successful both candidates will be at winning voters outside their traditional bases of support. Five failed candidates between them garnered some 46% of votes that are now up for grabs.

Perhaps the biggest mystery will be how those who voted for libertarian economist Franco Parisi will cast their votes. Parisi, who lives in Alabama and never set foot in Chile during the campaign, surprised many by finishing third with 12.8% of the vote.

“The Parisi voter is neither on the Left nor the Right,” said Guillermo Holzmann, a professor at the University of Valparaiso.

“This is a vote that will need a lot of analysis.”

Reporting by Gram Slattery, Natalia A. Ramos Miranda and Fabian Cambero, Additional reporting by Reuters TV, Editing by William Maclean and Rosalba O’Brien
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Venezuela opposition says it must rebuild after heavy election loss

CARACAS, Nov 22 (Reuters) – Venezuela’s opposition needs to rebuild and reflect on its strategy after suffering a heavy defeat in regional elections at the weekend, its leader Juan Guaido said on Monday, calling for unity among the fragmented movement’s leadership.

Venezuela’s ruling party won at least 18 governorships out of 23 states, according to updated election results published by the National Electoral Council (CNE) on Monday.

The electoral authority had earlier declared the ruling party victorious in 20 governorship elections. But close elections in Barinas and Apure states, which traditionally back the Socialist party, led the CNE to later say those results remained to be confirmed.

Opposition politicians have so far won just three states.

The main opposition parties had boycotted presidential elections in 2018 and congressional polls in 2020, arguing a fair ballot was impossible because of interference from President Nicolas Maduro’s government and violent gangs loyal to him.

But they returned to the ballot box this year amid frustration over the failure of U.S. sanctions to dislodge Maduro despite prolonged social and economic hardship.

Sunday’s vote was seen as a test of strength ahead of presidential elections scheduled for 2024. The opposition was also emboldened by the presence of election observers from the European Union.

A preliminary report from the mission is due on Tuesday, but there were no major reports of disruptions.

However, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Maduro’s government of holding flawed elections that “skewed the process” to pre-determine the result in his party’s favor, citing harassment and bans of opposition candidates, voter roll manipulation, and censorship.

Guaido, the former speaker of Congress who is recognized by Washington and its allies as Venezuela’s rightful leader, said on Monday that the opposition needed to “rebuild itself” after the disappointing result.

“Today a new phase is opening,” he said, without providing specifics. “Today is a time for reflection amongst our leadership… It is not the time for fights nor egotism among political leaders.”

Analysts said ahead of the vote that the opposition’s late decision to participate and in-fighting over whether it should run candidates would damage its showing.

The opposition urgently needed to rethink its strategy in order to reconnect with voters and burnish its credibility, said Enderson Sequera, head of Venezuela’s Politiks consultancy.

“The conclusion of (Sunday’s vote) in Venezuela is very clear: Chavismo is more stable in power and the democratic opposition finds itself further from achieving political change,” Sequera said, referring to the nickname for the ruling party, once headed by the late President Hugo Chavez.

NEED TO REBUILD TRUST

Despite opposition efforts to galvanize voters at the last minute, turnout was relatively low at 41.8%, according to the CNE. That is equivalent to some 8.1 million people and is in line with previous local and regional elections. Low turnout in Venezuela favors the ruling Socialist party’s political machine, analysts say.

“The government has shown again that despite not having widespread popular support, it remains in power due to the lack of an opposition with a coordinated strategy,” said Maryhen Jimenez, a researcher at the University of Oxford’s Latin American Centre.

After seeing living standards decline amid hyperinflation and a seven-year recession, many ordinary Venezuelans are disillusioned with politics. Millions of people have emigrated.

The ruling party saw supporter numbers drop to 3.7 million, according to CNE figures, from some 5.9 million votes in 2017 regional elections.

The oil-rich state of Zulia was won by opposition politician Manuel Rosales with 56.1% of the vote, who said it was clear that Venezuela’s opposition movement faced challenges.

“You can’t hide this crisis with complacent speeches,” Rosales, a lawyer and former presidential candidate, said on Monday in Maracaibo, Zulia’s capital.

The CNE has yet to announce victors in mayorship races – with the exception of capital Caracas, where the ruling party candidate won.

Maduro said on Sunday a return to negotiations in Mexico with the Venezuelan opposition would not take place until “the kidnap” of prominent government envoy Alex Saab – recently extradited to the United States on money laundering charges – is answered for.

The talks, begun in August, are meant to seek a way out of Venezuela’s economic and social crisis.

Guaido said he was cautiously optimistic the government would return to the table and he was discussing with international allies ways of increasing pressure on Maduro’s government.

Reporting by Vivian Sequera, Mayela Armas and Deisy Buitrago. Additional reporting by Mariela Nava in Maracaibo Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb and Oliver Griffin Editing by Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O’Brien
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