From Explosion to the Polls: Chile at the Gates of a Pivotal Year

Gerardo Szalkowicz
On April 11, the 155 members of the Convention that will draft the new Constitution will be elected. Mayors and -for the first time- governors will also be elected on the same day, and on November 21, the presidential and legislative elections will be held.

A long season of political-electoral events is about to begin in Chile, the outcome of which may mark the beginning of a new historical cycle. What is at stake, centrally, is: how much of the spirit of the social explosion of October 2019, how much of that rage detonated against all injustices, can enter the political institutions, and, ultimately, how much will it manage to transform it?

The political map resulting from these multiple electoral contests, and especially the corollary of the constituent process (its destructive magnitude), will determine whether the traditional partycracy manages to resist through cosmetic touch-ups, changing a few things so that nothing changes, or whether the insurgent drive manages to lay the foundations for a new social pact that will overthrow the neoliberal Chile of the last decades.

In November 2019, in the midst of social effervescence and when the status quo seemed to shake, the political parties negotiated the “Agreement for Social Peace and the New Constitution”. But this concession to the mobilized people contained a trap: any substantial modification to the Constitution would have to be approved by at least two thirds of the Convention members. Conclusion: if the right wing manages to get more than 33% of the seats in the Constitutional Convention, it will have veto power over structural reforms.

In spite of the discredit that President Sebastián Piñera and his troop are dragging in their wake -barely diminished by the “success” of the vaccination campaign-, it is possible that the ruling coalition “Chile Vamos” will achieve that level, primarily because it will be united in a single ticket, together with the ultra-right-wing Republican Party.

The opposing parties are grouped in two main sectors. The Lista del Apruebo, a new version of the old Concertación that co-governed during the last 30 years, and the Lista Apruebo Dignidad, an alliance between the Communist Party and the Frente Amplio. The novelty is the irruption of independent candidacies, nominating mostly social leaders and operating on a tilted playing field; they had to overcome administrative obstacles and gather a large number of signatures to participate, in addition to not having resources, machinery or media space.

In the plebiscite of October 2020, which endorsed the burial of the Pinochet Constitution, almost 80% voted that current legislators should not participate in the Convention. However, the current electoral system is conspiring against these independent candidacies and the main risk is that the constituent process will be monopolized by the same repudiated political class, and that the popular demands will be diluted into mere superficial measures. On the positive side, the body will have gender parity and there will be 17 seats reserved for indigenous peoples.

The arrogance of the elite underestimates the awakening of Chilean society that can no longer be reversed. And if the old refuses to die and wins at the polls, the new will continue to struggle to be born and will fight again in the streets.

On April 11, authorities of the 16 regions, which until today were not elective positions, will also be elected, as well as municipal authorities. And in November, when the Constitutional Convention will be in full operation, the presidential elections will be held together with the parliamentary elections. Although there is an eternity to go, there is a certain expectation that Daniel Jadue, from the Communist Party, will have a chance of winning, which would mean a significant political turn and the possibility of a new ally for the renewed Latin American progressive pole.

The stage that is opening will be marked by the struggle between a system that will try to recycle itself, the progressivism that is seeking to finally emerge and the entry into institutional politics of new actors with roots in popular, feminist and indigenous organizations, who will press for the long-delayed transformations. A few days ago, Chancellor Andres Allamand made reference to the social protests and assured that “Chile has recovered its normality”. He is wrong. The arrogance of the elite underestimates the awakening of Chilean society that can no longer be reversed. And if the old refuses to die and wins at the polls, the new will continue to struggle to be born and will fight again in the streets.

Translation by Internationalist 360°