The reactionary right wing expected to add a step forward in Chile. The tandem of José Antonio Kast with the ultra-right-wing Brazilian President Bolsonaro would have meant a threatening pincer for the region. It failed. Almost 12 points of advantage put an end to one of the most polarized and uncertain processes since the return to democracy in 1989, on a hot day and with a notorious drop in public transportation that attempted to prevent citizens from going en masse to vote for their future, for the center-left Gabriel Boric.
At 35 years of age, Gabriel Boric is the youngest president-elect (he will be 36 when he takes office on March 11) and the most voted in Chilean history, with an unprecedented 55% of electoral participation. It is also the first time that an incumbent congressman like himself becomes president.
In addition, the next president will accompany the process of the ratification plebiscite of the New Constitution, during the first semester of next year, a decade after the great student protests of 2011 where Boric, then leader of the University of Chile, was one of the most prominent leaders. Movements against an economic model that generated inequality, poverty and looting of the country, which culminated in the drafting of a new Constitution.
“How many of you marched in 2006, 2011, 2012? We are from a generation that emerges to public life demanding that education be a right and not a consumer good.”
He also spoke of putting an end to the particular pension system that makes private individuals invest with the money that the people obligatorily impose for retirement without participating in the profits. “We do not want them to continue doing business with our pensions”, he said to the thousands of Santiago residents who were celebrating the triumph.
If the result was surprising and unexpected, so was the high turnout, which was 55.4 percent of registered citizens, in contrast to 46.7 percent in the previous elections and 41.98 percent in 2013. It was also unprecedented that the candidate who came second in the first round won in the second round.
Boric’s election also meant the defeat of the conservative and authoritarian backlash, in a presidential outcome in continuity with the crisis detonated as of 2019, when the people -especially the new generations- took to the streets, demonstrating -as Aram Aharojian said- that the left, in Latin America, is in the streets.
At the end of his first speech as president-elect, Boric said:
“Today hope has won over fear. Chilean men and women have arrived with a government project, which can be synthesized in advancing with responsibility in the structural changes that Chile needs. Our government will be a government with its feet on the street”.
He also spoke about defending human rights, defending the new constitution and fighting against projects that destroy the environment:
“No to Dominga… We cannot look aside when the greed of a few destroys unique ecosystems”.
He acknowledged that “the times ahead will not be easy” and that he will have to face the consequences of the worst pandemic of the last century, but also of the social uprising. He pointed out that “never, for any reason should we have a president who declares war on his own people”, alluding to a phrase of the current president Sebastián Piñera, in the midst of the 2019 Santiago riots, assuring that “we were at war”. He then repeated the chant that emerged among the public:
“Justice, truth, no to impunity”.
Since the social unrest, the crisis was translated into a series of street and electoral events, in particular the plebiscite for a new Constitution, and the installation of the Constitutional Commission, last July, in charge of drafting the new constitutional text, which will put an end to that of Agousto Pinochet’s dictatorship.
For the second electoral round, Boric redefined his discourse, enhancing issues such as security, migrations and the look to the future, adding Izkia Siches, president of the Medical College as spokesperson, one of the most charismatic and beloved leaders during the pandemic.
He also managed to evade the provocations of the ultra-right, Kast’s cronies, who both in television debates and in social networks were lavish in fake news and rumors, including from photographic montages to accusing him of drug use (Boric in the middle of the debate presented an anti-drug test), a strategy that never before in Chile had reached that level of political professionalism, in the best Trumpian style.
For some analysts, what stood out was the contrast between two candidates who for the first time since 1993, the year of the reestablishment of formal democracy, are alien to the two large center-left and center-right blocs that alternated in the Presidency, as well as the fact that both Boric and Kast broke with the basic consensuses of the Chilean transition.
While Boric has expressed his support for abandoning the neoliberal model imposed since 1973 by the military dictatorship of Agousto Pinochet, Kast, who was politically formed in Pinochet’s surroundings, threatened to suppress rights and liberties hard won in decades of struggles and mobilizations.
It is inevitable, therefore, to feel a sense of relief at the defeat of a reactionary close to neo-fascist positions, who did not hesitate to condemn the right to abortion, the rights of native peoples and sexual minorities and expressed open hostility towards social gains in education, health and labor.
In contrast, in various Chilean cities there was a celebration of what many consider the triumph of the social movements that shook the country for a decade, starting with the student mobilizations, the Mapuche struggle and the widespread social rebellion that took place in 2019 and 2020.
However, the transformative prospects of the soon-to-be-initiated government should be observed with caution.
It should be borne in mind that the Legislative emanating from the November 21 election is fragmented into more than 20 parties and four coalitions with blurred ideological boundaries, and in which the formations supporting the newly elected president barely have a quarter of the seats, while the right-wing coalitions maintain between them a large majority.
Likewise, between the first and second rounds, Boric and Kast, in search of centrist votes, moderated their strongest positions and acquired several political compromises, which significantly reduces the possibilities of a break with the established order. All hope that the new Chilean president will join the progressive governments that have emerged in recent years and thus provide a new impetus in the region to the programs of social justice, sovereignty and regional integration.
All this is, to a large extent, a corollary of a deep social discontent, which led to the outbreak of protests initiated at the end of 2019 (with an important antecedent in the student mobilizations of 2011, from which emerged, among other current political leaders, Boric) and to a considerable increase in electoral participation in the ballot, which was the highest since voting ceased to be compulsory in 2012.
The reasons for the discontent are no mystery. Chile has endured since the 1973 coup a great inequality, rooted in the commoditization of basic goods and services such as education, health and the pension system, and fostered by constitutional rules that privilege private activity, determined and deepened serious shortages, punished especially the most vulnerable sectors of the population and caused a heavy indebtedness of households, frustrating the expectations of social mobility.
The right wing, as in all Latin America, tried to frighten citizens by saying that Chile could become “another Venezuela”, but few were frightened by this story. In his first speech, the president-elect promised a government open to popular participation to “sustain the process of changes”, which he summarized as a “broadening of democracy” to respond to “the demands for justice and dignity”.
He announced significant changes in the field of rights, including those of indigenous peoples; a care system that emancipates women from the overload in that field; and the end of private pension fund administrators, which will be replaced by a “public and autonomous non-profit system”.
With Boric, who is 35 years old and will take office on March 11, 2022, comes a center-left that knows that “the times ahead are not going to be easy”, but is committed to “advance with responsibility in structural changes, leaving no one behind”. DCFrom words to deeds… there will be time to analyze it.
The Chilean process has had, for more than half a century, characteristics that differentiate it within the region. This imposes caution when making predictions about what is to come, but there is no doubt that a new stage has begun, with deep social roots and an increase in democratic participation, which gives rise to new (or renewed) hopes.
The government has been achieved, it remains to consolidate governance
Gabriel Boric, the President-elect, has already managed to transcend the borders of his own political coalition but it is still not clear how he will face in the coming months and years the tensions with the parties of the Dignity Approval, composed by the Communist Party and the groupings of the Frente Amplio. Having already won the Government, the great task of ensuring governability lies ahead.
It remains to be seen if the social-democratization of the second round, led by the candidate himself to conquer votes from the center, and the basis of his electoral triumph, will find an echo within his own coalition. Some analysts have wondered if this movement towards the center, moderation and social democracy was a tactical movement, of an electoral nature, or if it arises from the candidate’s own convictions.
Some argue that what there is is an evolution and a maturation process for him and for those who led the student movement in 2011, such as Giorgio Jackson, Camila Vallejo and Karol Cariola, the so-called generation of change, which is precisely the one that will have to make the change.
But the student mobilizations opened the way to the stage of parliamentary elections, of assuming State functions, until the social outburst moved politics back to the streets. “Massive evasion, civil disobedience and Piñera’s resignation”, shouted the young leaders of the PC and the Frente Amplio until leading to the constituent process, then with one foot in the Convention and another foot in the street.
Chile presents a scenario of fiscal restriction and an overheated economy for 2022, with a candidate who has already committed to respect the 22% budget cut for next year, while the tax reform and pension projects are being processed in Parliament.
Ignacio Walker points out that “it is well known that elections are written in poetry and governments in prose, what we do not know is to what extent the social democratic drift of the President elect, which led him to victory in the second electoral round, will find an echo within his own coalition”.
Once the President is elected, the tests of governability begin. The first one will be constituted by the reception in the coalition of the document “A sustainable and equitable growth for the short and medium term”, of seven pages, and the “Economic Implementation Agreement”, of 18 pages, delivered by the Economic Advisory Committee of Gabriel Boric’s candidacy.
The president-elect has stressed that these documents reflect his own position as candidate, which does not mean that the Communist Party and the others of the Frente Amplio assume as theirs both documents on programmatic contents, gradualism and fiscal responsibility, since both documents enter into tension with the 229 pages of the “Programa de gobierno del Apruebo Dignidad” (Government Program of Dignity Approval).
José Manuel Rodríguez points out that “Boric, more an intelligent millennial than a militant of the left, imagines that the adequate way to reconcile progress with a dignified life is social democracy. I do not think he is unaware of the repeated failure of those who have sought that path. Nor is he unaware of the failure of socialism in those countries of the Soviet orbit.”
“What he seems to be unaware of is the weight of imperial capitalism. Ignorant of this, he cannot understand the importance of being anti-imperialist in the struggle for the sovereignty of the peoples. This alone can explain why he calls the governments of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela ‘dictatorships’,” he says, alarmed.
As the then young people (in 1973) warned in the streets with their chants: Beware, one thing is the government and another the seizure of power.
*Sociologist, co-director of the Observatory on Communication and Democracy and senior analyst at the Latin American Center for Strategic Analysis (CLAE).