Magazine article Americas Quarterly

Chile's Pragmatic Middle-Class Voter

Magazine article Americas Quarterly

Chile's Pragmatic Middle-Class Voter

Article excerpt

For aspiring Chilean presidents, the path to La Moneda Palace now lies through Chile's politically discerning middle class.

Chile's middle class has always played a key role in the country's politics. In the first four presidential elections after the 1989 democratic transition, middle-class voters were a decisive factor in the victories of center-leftConcertación candidates Patricio Aylwin, Eduardo Frei, Ricardo Lagos, and Michelle Bachelet. By 2009, however, Chile's middle class turned away from the Concertación and voted for Sebastián Piñera, a center-right businessman and former senator who became the country's first non-Concertación president since the return to democracy.

The historic shiftwas not driven by any change in the Left's platform and rhetoric, or by the personalities of the candidates. It was the Chilean middle class that had changed.

Chile's middle class represents a majority segment of the voting population. It is defined as adults over 18 belonging to the middle 50 percent of households ranked by socioeconomic status. And over the past two decades, its interests and characteristics have changed.

Today, middle-class Chileans are more educated, more likely to send their children to private schools and to have greater access to credit to purchase goods and services. They also, significantly, demonstrate less party loyalty-making them a critical swing vote.

Thus, although surveys show the current government under Piñera is losing support among the general electorate, the underlying shiftin middle-class voting behavior, combined with low turnout levels in the 2012 municipal elections, has complicated predictions for the 2013 presidential election.


The classification of the middle class is derived from a socioeconomic index that considers not only income, but also education and asset holdings. It's a widely used definition in social science research (e.g., Lopez-Calva and Torche, 2010). In this analysis, the segment that would be considered middle class corresponds to those between the 40th and 90th percentiles of the sociodemographic distribution of the entire population. We used this definition because Chileans between the 40th and 90th percentiles share similar characteristics, such as education levels and income.

The past 20 years have witnessed dramatic changes in Chile's middle class. Most of those who belong to this group today lived below the poverty line in 1990. Their children usually failed to go beyond secondary school, and few aspired to higher education. They had little access to goods and services.

Families in the early 1990s worried about meeting basic needs-and they were receptive to political rhetoric that focused on housing, employment, the eradication of poverty, and the opportunity for their children to graduCenate from public high school.

As shown in figure 1 [p.41], the majority of today's middle-class children attend private schools, graduate from high school, and enroll in a vocational school or university.

Almost half of middle-class 3- to 5-year-olds attend preschool, which has freed mothers to enter the workforce- and consequently increase family incomes. This has put a wide variety of goods and services within the reach of middle-class Chileans.

The changes in their socioeconomic conditions have made a dramatic difference in the outlook of Chile's middle class. Their dreams and aspirations are no different from those of the wealthy: a vocational or university degree for their children, vacations abroad, better quality neighborhoods.

That, in turn, has changed their expectations of government. Middleclass Chileans expect their political leaders to expand access to quality higher education, health care and jobs, improve public transportation and safety, enhance the quality of the urban environment and protect them from financial fraud and abuses.

Put another way, the middle class shiftaway from the Leftis, ironically, the result of the prosperity and democracy ushered in by the center-leftleadership in 1990. …

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