But as Chileans head to the polls on Sunday, with the fate of the 20-year old governing coalition in the balance, young voters are not likely to play a major role.
Even as its democracy has matured and its steady economic management has become the envy of Latin America, Chile’s youngest citizens have developed a serious case of political apathy.
Just 9.2 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds are registered to vote on Sunday, the lowest number for a presidential election since democracy was restored in 1990, and slightly lower than the percentage registered in 2005 when Chileans elected Michelle Bachelet, the first woman to become president. She is not allowed to seek a second consecutive term under the Constitution.
“I hope that 9 percent becomes zero percent,” said Gonzalo Castillo, an 18-year-old history major at the University of Chile, who said he refused to register. “All the candidates represent the interests of the oligarchy, of big business interests.”
Chile’s young people say they are frustrated by a system that requires anyone who registers to cast votes for the rest of their lives, and slaps a fine on those who do not. They say the system, set up under General Pinochet, limits their freedom of expression and discourages them from registering.
But the younger generation is also deeply apathetic about traditional politics in general, and fiercely independent of the issues that concern their parents, most of whom lived through the dictatorship.
“Chile’s youth today see political discourse as the language of their parents, not as their language,” said Juan Eduardo Faúndez, the director of the National Youth Institute. “These are the children of democracy, and they have other options and other demands of Chilean society, and of the political class.”
Chile’s youth seem willing to engage in politics when an issue directly touches their lives. In the so-called penguin revolution of 2006, tens of thousands of high school students, many wearing uniforms with little dark ties on white shirts, protested throughout the country to demand improvements in the education system.
The president ended up negotiating with the student leaders and gave in to most of their demands. But voting is another matter. Not even the youthful energy and ideas of a 36-year-old filmmaker, Marco Enríquez-Ominami, who is running as an independent, has been enough to draw them to the polls this year.
Mr. Enríquez-Ominami, who resigned as a congressman from the Socialist Party to run for president, has nevertheless shaken up the race between the governing Concertación coalition and its right-wing challenger.
In polls last week, Sebastian Piñera, a right-of-center billionaire businessman, was leading with 44 percent, over the 31 percent supporting Eduardo Frei, a former president who is seeking to succeed Ms. Bachelet in the unbroken line of Concertación-backed presidents.
Mr. Enríquez-Ominami, who grew up partly in exile in France, was in third place with about 18 percent, according to polls, enough to deprive any candidate of the majority required to avoid a runoff in January.
But with 16 percent of the electorate still undecided — the highest number heading into a presidential election since 1988 — the results were difficult to forecast, analysts said.
Concertación, a coalition of Socialists, Radicals and Christian Democrats, built the post-dictatorship democracy and put in place social programs and stable, market-friendly economic policies, all of which have won Chile international respect. But this election, Concertación refused to hold primaries to select its candidate, denying outsiders the chance to compete.
That gave Mr. Enríquez-Ominami an opportunity to market himself as independent outsider. His ability to mount a serious challenge suggests that some are weary of Concertación, despite the success of Ms. Bachelet, whose social programs and effective stewardship of the economy have won her a 74 percent approval rating in recent polls.
But her popularity has proven difficult to transfer. The selection by party insiders of Mr. Frei, 67, whose father was also a president, has marked him as the staid product of the Concertación machine, analysts said.
Regardless of who wins on Sunday, Chile’s market-friendly economic policies are unlikely to change, as none of the candidates are proposing major reforms in that arena.
Mr. Frei has pledged to expand the social programs begun by Ms. Bachelet, who improved conditions for women and significantly increased the number of day care centers.
Mr. Piñera said in a speech on Friday that he would beef up public security and crack down on drug trafficking. He also spoke of the need to address the concerns of the middle class (lolololwut?), which he said were ignored during the Bachelet years.
Members of the Bachelet government had hoped that younger voters could play a strategic role in this election, which has turned out to be one of the most competitive since free elections resumed in 1989.
In 1988, 95 percent of voters under 29 were registered, representing 36 percent of the total voters, according to government figures. If all voters under 29 were registered today, they would make up 32 percent of eligible voters, Mr. Faúndez said.
But the number of registered young voters has declined steadily since 1988 and by last April, it had reached a historic low of 7.5 percent. Ms. Bachelet authorized a $1 million emergency voter-registration drive, which managed to add 170,000 voters in under two months, bringing the youth quotient back above 9 percent, Mr. Faúndez said.
Mr. Enríquez-Ominami, despite his attempts to appeal to younger voters as an independent, modern alternative, has also proven unable to push it higher. He blamed the system of voluntary registration and mandatory voting for discouraging younger voters.
“A vote should be a duty, not an obligation,” he said.
Ms. Bachelet tried in April to make registration automatic at 18 and voting voluntary. But the measure failed in Congress, where some feared it would cause voter participation to drop even further.
The failure of young Chileans to vote has encouraged candidates to ignore their concerns. “It’s a vicious cycle in which the people that control the country, to perpetuate themselves in power, are speaking only to the older generation,” Mr. Faúndez said.
That chasm was palpable at the University of Chile on Friday.
“The young people in Chile have never felt like they were included in the political process,” said Sebastian Alfaro, 19, who said he was registered and would vote for Mr. Enríquez-Ominami. “We are just seen as a number to the candidates. They never create concrete projects, propose policies just for young people.”
Aw, this kind of disappoints me =( I wish that young people in Chile now were as enthusiastic as they were back in '88 when they kicked Pinochet out (I *do* understand where some of them are coming from though because Chile's current dictatorship constitution sucks). Because they need to be enthusiastic or else Pinochet's apologists and supporters (aka the Chilean right--idc if Pinera himself voted for the No or led the ~association of businessmen against Pinochet~, he has friends and allies that didn't) are gonna win. Here's hoping the center-left can get its act together before the January runoff