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Chile drops mandatory vote – and a few incumbent mayors

Chileans replaced pro-government mayors in many of its biggest municipalities yesterday in an election that saw only a fraction of eligible voters cast ballots.

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A child gestures as people cast their vote at a public school during municipal elections in Valparaiso city, about 75 miles northwest of Santiago, October 28. Chilean voters elected mayors and councilmen across 15 political regions on Sunday.

Eliseo Fernandez/Reuters

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Chileans replaced pro-government mayors in many of its most important municipalities yesterday, in the country's first election without mandatory voting. It marked a reverse for the administration of President Sebastian Piñera, who three years ago became the first elected conservative president in Chile in decades.

The incumbent mayors of several boroughs of the capital, Santiago, were rejected by voters in an election marked by historically low turnout. Santiago center, as well as the nearby boroughs of Providencia, Ñuñoa, and Recoleta, all shifted from mayors aligned with President Piñera to outsiders ranging from an independent to a communist.

"If you look at opinion polls and the issues of policy, Chileans are sort of center-left," says Robert Funk, a professor of public affairs at the University of Chile. The vote was a “rejection of the government,” he says, while stressing that the issues at stake were generally local, rather than national.

For more than a year, the government has had approval ratings of 25 to 30 percent, says Funk, “and that’s what they got.” He says this election shows that Piñera's victory three years ago was more a rejection of the moribund left than a wholehearted embrace of conservative beliefs.

'Test' of voluntary voting

The election was widely seen as the first test of Chile's move away from voluntary registration and mandatory voting. Under the old system, voters could be fined more than $200 for failing to show up – a rule that caused many lower-income and younger voters to refuse to register. The voting rolls used yesterday included all eligible voters, through automatic registration, but voters were left to decide whether to show up. Many didn't.

Among the country's 13.4 million names on the election rolls, only 5.5 million people voted.

Most of the abstentions were likely from people who just didn't care much about the election, Funk says. "In this new system, the people who vote are the hard line of both sides."

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