Should a country’s president be a knowledgeable, cultured person? Should he or she be able to speak intelligently about the many issues and challenges the nation faces? Chileans seem to think so. On the night of Oct. 3, seven of the eight candidates competing for the presidency agreed to stand in front of a panel of 10 well-known academics, who lobbed questions at them on topics ranging from terrorism and economic policy to arts and culture. Candidates were expected to produce 90-second answers that both showed their intellectual qualifications to hold the presidency and expressed something about the direction they plan to move the country toward should they win.
The forum debate was moderated by journalists Verónica Franco and Sergio Campos, and featured academics who have won the prestigious National Prize in their respective fields. They included political scientist Manuel Antonio Garretón, education expert Beatriz Avalos, and respected scientists Miguel Kiwi and Jose Maza.
Candidates commented on the need for a new national constitution, childhood obesity, the decades-long crisis of Mapuche indigenous people, investment in science and technology, economic policy, public education, and many other issues. Surely the Chilean press will pore over the answers to glean as much information as it can on the candidates’ positions, but the initial reaction is that all of the participants represented themselves nicely.
There was one tense moment between two candidates regarding the salaries lawmakers are paid, but on the whole the event was dignified and illuminating.
Chile’s presidential election is scheduled to take place on Nov. 19. The clear frontrunner, basically from the start, has been former president Sebastián Piñera, leader of the Chile Vamos (“Let’s Go, Chile”) political party. Piñera had a rocky first term as president, punctuated by confrontation with university students over the future of the country’s higher education system in what came to be known as the Chilean Winter. Despite his unpopularity among some sectors of the population, he announced that he would run again in 2017 (Chile allows for presidential re-election, but not on consecutive terms). Piñera, a billionaire and one of the richest men in Chile, is a political conservative who favors free market policies and has long stood in opposition to the current president, leftist Michelle Bachelet. His polling numbers have consistently hovered around 30 percent of the electorate, way ahead of his closest competitors.
Locked in a tight battle for second place are two center-left candidates: social democratic senator Alejandro Guillier and journalist Beatriz Sánchez. In the most recent polling, both receive about 20 percent of the votes. For months, Guillier appeared to have the runner-up spot, but Sánchez has surged recently and it seems momentum is on her side. Crucially, Piñera doesn’t seem to have enough support to win the presidency outright. The high likelihood is that there will be a runoff election (scheduled for Dec. 17) between the top two vote-getters. It is conceivable that the runner-up will be able to attract supporters from the losing candidates and beat Piñera in the runoff.
Possibly because he had the most to lose from a bad performance, Piñera bowed out of the forum-debate. He did not seem to want to risk losing face in front of a bunch of academics. This was unfortunate, though not unexpected, and it essentially means that the debate will have little impact on the final electoral result. Still, it carried significant symbolic weight. The remaining seven candidates did participate, signaling that cultural literacy and high intellectual standards remain important in their society. This is in tune with Chile’s historical values, but also sends a message to a certain North American country, in which the current president brags about not reading books and requires that policy briefings include lots of pictures so he can follow along.