Beyond the headlines: 10 preliminary questions and answers on Chile’s recent presidential election

23 ဒီဇင်ဘာလ အသုံးပြု စကားစု - လအမည် အပြည့်အစုံ 2021
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The election of Gabriel Boric as President of Chile has attracted international press attention and generated much hope, excitement and debate among political and social activists in Latin America and other regions of the world. So what can we expect? Some preliminary answers and context to understand the historic victory.

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Gabriel Boric. Credit: Paulo Slachevsky https://flickr.com/photos/pauloslachevsky (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Photo credit Paulo Slachevsky https://flickr.com/photos/pauloslachevsky (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
In the days leading up to 20 December 2021, many of the world’s leading newspapers and magazines presented the election in Chile as an unfortunate and forced choice between two “extremists” who would only offer two different variants of populism. Within the Latin American and global left, Boric’s triumph has also provoked deep discussions between those who equate his victory with Salvador Allende’s election in 1970 – on the one hand –and those who interpret it as the mere continuity of the social, political and economic model consolidated by former president Michelle Bachelet and other centre-left politicians of the past decades – on the other.

This is a moment in which it is necessary to take stock, admit uncertainty and carefully explore the underlying dynamics of a complex situation. Snap diagnoses abound in the media and on social media, some with highly biased or fatalistic headlines. Here we propose ten questions and some preliminary answers as a first contribution to a debate that will hopefully deepen as the process of change in Chile moves forward.

(1) Who is the new president?

Gabriel Boric is a former student leader, parliamentarian, member of the Convergencia Social party (part of the Frente Amplio alliance) and presidential candidate for the coalition of left-wing parties and movements Apruebo Dignidad. Boric was elected on 20 December 2021 with 4.6 million votes, the highest support for a presidential candidate in the country’s history. When he takes office as president at the age of 36 on 11 March 2022, Boric will be the youngest person to hold that office in the country’s history.

In the second round of the presidential election, in addition to votes from the left, Boric also garnered support from sectors of the centre or centre-right – in particular followers of parties that used to be part of the defunct Concertación (the alliance of Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and Liberals that governed Chile between 1990 and 2010) – and from conservative voters concerned about the rise of a candidate openly aligned with the legacy of Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship.

Boric was one of the main leaders of the so-called ‘penguin revolution’, the massive rebellion of Chilean students in 2006 that demanded free and high-quality education and foreshadowed the social mobilisations of the following years. In 2008 he was elected councillor of the Student Federation of the University of Chile (FECH) and in 2010 president of the Law Students’ Union. After co-founding the Izquierda Autónoma collective, his entry into parliament as a deputy for the Magallanes region allowed him to gain experience in institutional politics, including the ability to weave alliances with other progressive sectors.

(2) Who is the defeated candidate and who does he represent?

José Antonio Kast was the candidate of the far-right coalition Frente Social Cristiano. Kast was the winner of the first round, with a slightly higher percentage of votes (27.9%) than the candidate of the left (25.8%).

The far-right’s election campaign focused on fear and public order, with constant allusions to crime, drug trafficking and the lack of economic security. The candidate, leader of the Republican Party, had also explicitly stated that if elected, disagreeing with the constitutional process and the foreseeable resulting constitutional text, he would cancel the plebiscite scheduled for 2022.

The relatively high turnout in the second round of the presidential election is largely explained by the fear of the possible triumph of a pinochetista candidate, with the consequent defeat and legitimisation of the extreme right via the ballot box. In the words of Camila Musante, a lawyer and member of Abofem (Association of Feminist Lawyers of Chile), Kast’s victory would have meant “a 100-year setback in terms of dignity and rights”, as “feminist conquests as important and basic as the right to vote would have been questioned, because this candidate intends to eliminate the institutions that protect women and is against recognising any right over our bodies”.

The growth of the far right beyond its natural base can largely be explained in relation to the electoral calculations of sectors and leaders of the traditional right who, as accusations of corruption against the current president mounted, decided to abandon the coalition led by Sebastián Piñera to support Kast. Opinion polls also highlighted migration and the conflict between the Chilean state and the Mapuche people as factors of concern to voters nostalgic of the Pinochet era, who were likely to embrace the far-right candidate’s radical ‘iron fist’ discourse.

The far right did better in rural areas and small towns, as well as among older voters, the same sectors that in Chile and elsewhere in the world are also more averse to feminism or the rights of sexual minorities. In contrast, Gabriel Boric’s candidacy garnered more support among middle-class and more educated voters, as well as among people living in the working-class neighbourhoods of Santiago and other large cities.

(3) What is Gabriel Boric’s ideological profile and who are his supporters?

The president-elect signifies the renewal of the Chilean left. Boric is the expression of a new generation not only in demographic terms, but also in ideological terms. He represents a generation less marked by the deep doctrinal discussions of the past and the bitter sectarian disputes of the old socialist or communist left. Boric belongs to a left more concerned with the pressing problems of the present than with overcoming capitalism through revolution. It is no coincidence that in his victory speech he included references to neoliberalism, the environment, women, public services, culture, diversity and indigenous peoples. Boric is a staunch critic of the neoliberal model installed during the Pinochet dictatorship and expresses a progressive political perspective that is more feminist, greener and more pragmatic, but which does not relinquish the historical principles and banners of the Chilean left.

In 2016, Boric was one of the founders of the Autonomist Movement, a new political organisation focused on the goal of renewing the Chilean left. During the 2021 presidential campaign, Boric declared that his generation “burst into politics in 2011, shaking off a little of the fears that had been generated by the dictatorship and the pacts of the transition”.

“With us, the people enter La Moneda,” Boric affirmed months later, in his speech before feminist women wearing green scarves, LGBTIQ+ activists waving rainbow flags of diversity, indigenous activists waving the Wenufoye (the emblem of the Mapuche people) and tens of thousands of exultant residents of popular neighbourhoods. The president-elect recalled his origins in the student movement and the social mobilisations of the last decade: “We are a generation that is emerging into public life demanding that rights be rights and not consumer goods, not commodities, and we will continue to defend those principles”.

The Chilean feminist movement enthusiastically called for a vote for Boric. “We elect a government in which our lives are not threatened by a misogynist programme like the one put forward by the pinochetista candidate”, said Pamela Valenzuela Cisternas, spokesperson for the Coordinadora Feminista 8M in the days leading up to the second round of the elections. The main indigenous peoples’ organisations also supported the left-wing candidate. The Mapuche political scientist Verónica Azpiroz Cleñan stated that the election result opens up “the possibility that a plurinational state can be built”, since “for the Mapuche people it is an opportunity to build autonomy from the territories of the original peoples, because Boric has travelled and knows the reality of the Mapuche territories in a situation of militarisation”.

The high electoral participation and mobilisation of young people, women and the inhabitants of the popular communes of the main urban centres, manifested in the great advantage obtained by Boric’s candidacy in the metropolitan areas of Santiago and Valparaíso, also expressed the apprehension in the face of a possible reactionary liquidation of the cycle of mass protests that began on 18 October 2019.

(4) What is Chile’s current social, political and economic context?

Between 1973 and 1990, the country suffered a brutal dictatorship that murdered, tortured, disappeared and exiled hundreds of thousands of Chileans. The dictatorship plundered natural resources, enriched the civilian and military leaders of the regime and ensured the continuity of the model of exploitation and oppression beyond the end of the Pinochet era.

Three decades after the end of the dictatorship, Chile is often presented as a successful model of neoliberal governance, exhibiting relatively good indicators in terms of economic growth and full membership of the OECD, the club of ‘developed’ countries. The other side of the alleged Chilean miracle is a tremendously unequal society, in which the most privileged 20% of the population has incomes more than ten times higher than those of the least privileged 20%. It is also, as the Argentine political scientist Atilio Borón points out, “a society that has broken its traditional bonds of solidarity and surrendered to the mirage summed up in the formula coined by the regime: citizenship is consumption”, exhibiting “the triumph of ‘anti-politics’ and, by extension, the obsolescence of all forms of collective action”.

Currently, Chile is one of the countries most affected by the pandemic. Despite having one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, it is also one of the countries that has suffered profound regressions in social and labour indicators, with an unprecedented drop in occupation and a parallel increase in unemployment. The Chilean economy is going through one of the biggest economic crises in its history, after experienced a GDP fall of over 6% in 2020.

In addition to trying to calm the economic and social waters, Boric will have to deal with the lack of trust in politics and state institutions. Chilean political scientist Pierina Ferretti argues that “after a half a century of state-sponsored neoliberalism, the majority of Chileans have grown to feel a profound sense of antipathy toward the Chilean political system”. Tens of thousands of political and social activists celebrated Boric’s victory in the streets, but the same researcher points out that “despite what could be considered an increasing level of politicisation among Chilean society, typified by the enormous mobilisations of the last two years and the election of a left-led constituent process, there remains a huge disconnect between the Chilean people and institutional party politics – the left included”.

(5) What are the priorities of the incoming left government, and how much room for manoeuvre will it have to reorient economic policy?

Shortly after his victory was confirmed, Boric read a long speech in which he ratified the priorities of his government, proclaiming that the Chilean economic model has “feet of clay” because “it does not reach the most needy”. Consequently, the president-elect reaffirmed his commitment to the main demands of the popular mobilisations of the last decade, in terms of health and education programmes “that do not discriminate between rich and poor”.

Boric’s electoral campaign focused on the expansion of rights – particularly for indigenous peoples and other oppressed or marginalised communities –, the decentralisation of the country, environmental policies, and the end of the institutional legacy of the dictatorship, in tune with the demands of the social outburst of 2019 and the programmatic agenda of the Constituent Convention.

With a certain similarity to the platforms of Podemos in Spain or the Frente Amplio in Uruguay, Boric proposes an economic and social transition towards a new type of welfare state. The president-elect also pledged to guarantee “decent pensions for those who worked to make Chile great” and to put an end to the system controlled by the Pension Fund Administrators (AFP) – the private companies that for the past four decades have profited from workers’ contributions. Boric announced the replacement of the current private system with a state-run and “solidarity-based, non-profit” system.

“If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism in Latin America, it will also be its tomb”, said Gabriel Boric in July 2021, when he was proclaimed as a presidential pre-candidate in the primaries of the left against Daniel Jadue, leader of the Communist Party.

Boric’s electoral programme included structural reforms to the current economic model instituted by the economic cabinet of the Pinochet dictatorship (the Chicago Boys) in the 1970s, which is why strong opposition from the conservative elites is to be expected. The immediate reaction of the markets to the election of a progressive government was not a surprise: the Santiago stock market plunged almost 8 per cent at the opening and the Chilean peso had its biggest daily drop against the dollar since November 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis.

To expand coverage and improve the quality of public services, the incoming government will have to raise taxes, affecting the interests of mining companies, the country’s main source of export earnings. The repeal of the pension system is also likely to generate very strong opposition from other sectors of the ruling classes that have made strong profits over several decades and have established strong links with conservative parties and politicians.

In order to avoid an open confrontation with the currently hegemonic economic sectors, the new government will most probably present in the coming days an economic team composed of mainstream economists, with the intention of reassuring the markets. Boric is not a revolutionary and as far as possible he will avoid direct confrontations with the Chilean bourgeoisie, being also aware that in the context of the pandemic and in the face of a regional and global crisis that could deepen in the short term, he will need to stabilise the economy in the first months of his government.

(6) What political support will the future government have in the Chilean parliament?

In addition to dealing with the economy, the new president will have to face with multiple political pressures, without a stable majority in the National Congress and with a constituent process underway to replace the authoritarian constitution inherited from the Pinochet dictatorship. In the November parliamentary election (parallel to the first round of the presidential election), the right found reasons to celebrate, as the vote obtained will allow it, as of March 2022, to control half of the Senate – where the centre-left is currently the majority bloc – and to have a greater presence in the Chamber of Deputies – which is marked by a strong atomisation and where neither of the two camps that contested the second round has absolute majority.

The high fragmentation of the Chamber of Deputies will force the new government to negotiate the support of the centre-left sectors that made up the former Concertación, which together have 37 seats. The left coalition behind Boric’s presidency is made up of the Frente Amplio and Communist Party benches, which together have 74 deputies. The right will have 68 deputies, adding the 53 seats of the Chile Podemos Más coalition (led by current president Sebastián Piñera) and the 15 seats of the far-right Frente Social Cristiano.

In the Chamber of Deputies, the left groups with the largest parliamentary representation will be the Socialist Party, with 13 seats, and the Communist Party with 12. The rest of the progressive bench will be very fragmented, with several other parties with smaller representation. In this context, it will not always be easy for Boric to obtain the legislative support the executive office will need to implement his programme.

On the other side of the aisle, the right can be expected to act as a solid opposition bloc. International experience shows that the right is generally much more pragmatic than the left and can settle their differences by uniting to confront any progressive reform. The internal cohesion of the alliance that made Boric’s election possible, on the other hand, is not guaranteed in the long term.

Also entering the Chamber of Deputies will be six legislators from the Partido de la Gente, led by populist presidential candidate Franco Parisi, who are not aligned in principle with either of the two blocs. The behaviour of this bench is an unknown factor; despite its small size, its votes could be crucial at certain moments.

(7) What is the relationship between this presidential election and the Constituent Assembly?

During the first year of government, Boric will also have to pay close attention to the process of constitutional reform. “For the first time in our republican history we are writing a Constitution in a democratic and participatory way, with the engagement of our native peoples. Let us all take care of this process so that we have a Magna Carta that is one of encounter and not of division, unlike the one that [the military] imposed with blood and fire through a fraudulent plebiscite in 1980 and that we had such a hard time changing,” Boric declared on the night of his election.

The outcome of the presidential election has ensured the continuity of the process of drafting the new constitution. The far-right candidate had spoken out against the reform, so his victory would have meant a direct conflict with the executive branch. The democratic forces are confident that the new constitutional text will dismantle the pillars of the neoliberal-pinochetista order, but the right will strongly oppose all proposals aimed at progressive change. The right has lost the presidential election, but it maintains intact its capacity to rally a large segment of the electorate and will resist united anything it perceives as a possible threat to the status quo. Throughout Latin America, the right has shown that it is not interested in conciliation or dialogue, and does not hesitate to radicalise all possible spaces of institutional confrontation.

The constituents elected in May 2021 are mostly aligned with left parties or progressive independents. The Constituent Assembly is presided by Elisa Loncon – a Mapuche leader and a staunch defender of the rights of indigenous peoples – and the vice-president is Jaime Bassa – a young leftist activist. Boric’s candidacy and electoral platform reflected the demands for political, economic and social structural changes that emerged from the social mobilisation of 2019. However, after the election of its members, the deliberative body revealed its atomised composition, in which the first minority is made up of independent constituents who do not respond to any of the right-wing or left-wing party coalitions and exhibit very heterogeneous ideological profiles.

The coalition Apruebo Dignidad, led by Boric, represents only 16 of the 155 seats that make up the Constituent Assembly, which will force the incoming president not only to seek alliances with the centre-left of the former Concertación, but also to gather support from independents.

(8) What is the significance of the Chilean presidential election for the left and progressive forces in Latin America and other regions of the world?

In Latin America, the victory of the left was received as very good news among political and social activists of very diverse backgrounds and ideological tendencies. Boric’s election revives the series of political changes in the region that began with the return of the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) to national office in Bolivia in November 2020, the inauguration of Pedro Castillo as President of Peru in July 2021, the election of Xiomara Castro Sarmiento as President of Honduras in November, and the consolidation of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s candidacy as favourite to win the presidential election in Brazil in October 2022.

One of the first to congratulate Boric was the former Brazilian president: “I congratulate comrade Gabriel Boric on his election as president of Chile,” he wrote on Twitter. The Workers’ Party (PT), led by Lula, also celebrated the victory with a message in the same tone: “Latin America is recovering its sovereignty and hope. Long live Chile!”

In Argentina, President Alberto Fernández reaffirmed “the commitment to strengthen the bonds of brotherhood that unite our countries and to work together with the region to put an end to inequality in Latin America”. Nobel Peace Prize laureate and human rights advocate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel expressed hope for the beginning of “another chapter of equality, expansion of rights and integration in Our America”.

The President of Bolivia, Luis Arce, said that Boric’s victory represents “the triumph of the Chilean people” and that “Latin American democracy is strengthened on the basis of unity, respect and, above all, the will of our peoples”. Cuban President Miguel Díaz Canel reaffirmed “the will to expand bilateral relations and cooperation between both peoples and governments”.

The European centre-left sent messages of celebration. The Spanish Prime Minister, the socialist Pedro Sánchez, said that “the Chilean people is moving forward with hope towards a more just, feminist and ecological future”. The political scientist and co-founder of Podemos, Juan Carlos Monedero, said that “in Chile, as in Europe, the same struggle is being settled between a democratic solution to the crisis of 2008 and the chaos caused by the coronavirus, on the one hand, and a return to the night of the past on the other” and that the advance of the left in Chile is “a regional sign of the exhaustion of the neoliberal model that must also reach Europe”.

In France, the Foreign Ministry communicated its “determination to continue strengthening bilateral relations in all areas, particularly in climate and environmental matters”. The mayor of Paris and Socialist Party’s presidential candidate, Anne Hidalgo, tweeted: “Congratulations! The victory of Gabriel Boric is  the victory of democracy, justice and equality. The victory of the Chilean people”.

From the United States – the historical imperial power in the region, with a long and dismal record of political interference – Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared that the Chilean people “once again set an example” with “free and fair” elections, and added that he looked forward to moving forward with the “shared goals of democracy, prosperity and security”. Also from Colombia, a country that has built a close relationship with Chile through the Pacific Alliance (the trade promotion treaty signed by the region’s right-wing governments), President Iván Duque also congratulated Boric: “We express our interest in continuing to work together to strengthen the historic and fraternal bilateral relationship that unites us”.

(9) What is Gabriel Boric’s position on human rights and civic liberties in other countries of the region?

In 2018, long before becoming the presidential candidate of the left, Boric had stated that “segments of the Latin American left permanently question the right for its complicity with the dictatorships of the Southern Cone in the second half of the 20th century, but is unable to recognise the restriction of freedoms or violations of human rights when these are carried out by governments they consider to be leftist or progressive”. The then parliamentarian argued that “just as we condemned the violation of human rights in Chile during the dictatorship, we on the left should, with the same force, condemn the permanent restriction of freedoms in Cuba, the repression of the [Daniel] Ortega government in Nicaragua, the dictatorship in China and the weakening of the basic pillars of democracy in Venezuela”.

At the same time, Boric clarified that condemnation of other supposedly ‘left’ governments should not be interpreted as support for sectors of the Venezuelan opposition that favour a coup, nor he should be considered as “a CIA agent” for disagreeing with the perpetuation of a one-party system in Cuba.

(10) What is Gabriel Boric’s position on the environment, climate change and extractivism?

The bet on (neo)extractivism and (neo)developmentalism as the way to ensure economic growth and social justice has been pointed out by many critics – including dissidents within the Latin American left – as one of the most serious mistakes or shortcomings of the progressive or left governments of past decades.

In August 2021, at the end of the official approval process for the Dominga mining-port megaproject to be run by the Andes Iron mining company in the Coquimbo region, the then candidate of the Chilean left declared: “When we talk about overcoming the current neoliberal model, extractivism, this model of development, we are referring to something that seems very distant in the future, but the IPCC report shows us that it is now, something already happening”. Later, on his Twitter account, Boric wrote: “Chile Vamos and the right parties are doing irreparable damage by allowing the Dominga mining project to continue. Our position on this is clear and we will stand firm in a future government: we want development, but not at the expense of the environment and the communities”.

Boric’s campaign manifesto explicitly states: “We will start a transition to a new model of production, but we know that in the short term the first priority of the government must be to generate jobs. We will do so with a view to the future that takes into account the climate and ecological crisis, as well as the historical setback in female labour insertion, and that together with micro and small businesses our economy advance towards the deconcentration of the market”.