Chile: Behind the Left’s Victory

Bill Young

Summary: Background and context for Chile’s runoff election – Editors

In a stunning turnaround from the first round of voting four weeks ago, Left presidential candidate Gabriel Boric swept to victory Dec 19 over Right wing candidate José Antonio Kast by a margin of 56% to 44%. At 35 years of age Boric will become the youngest president in Chile’s history and one of the youngest heads of state in the world. To achieve this Boric increased his second round vote by 2.8 million to 4.6 million votes. This is more than 2.5 times his first round total four weeks earlier, which is remarkable.

Where did the 2.8 million votes come from? Boric was able to attract 1.2 million new voters into the second round despite customary Chilean voter abstention. These abstaining voters include youth, marginalized city dwellers, and rural populations. Of the seven first round presidential candidates, the four Center Left candidates threw all their 1.5 million votes to Boric. Surprisingly he also picked up 110,000 votes from the Center Right to reach the 2.8 million increase.

After the neoliberal abandonment of compulsory voting in 2012, Chilean elections have been marked by low voter turnout and apathy. Voters show low identification with parties. In the words of Noam Titelman, Chilean political scientist at the London School of Economics, the point to understand about the past two years in Chile is that “rather than being a turn to the Left, it’s been a turn against the elites. And while that turn has for some time been expressed in more progressive demands, it could at any moment be expressed by the far Right.” Happily, this election showed the anger against elites continues to favor the Left. On Dec 19 the Right wing message was rejected by Chilean voters.

Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that grassroots opposition to elites in Chile maintains its independence from Left and Right electoral politics. This shown by the December 19, 2021 vote totals:

Left (Boric)                    4,620,671    (30.7%)

Right (Kast)                   3,649,647    (24.3%)

Voters Abstaining           6,760,656    (45.0%)

Total Eligible Voters       15,030,974   (100.0%)

Thus the winning candidate on Dec 19 was ‘Abstain’ with 45.0% of the eligible vote. Boric came in second with 30.7% and the Rightist Kast a distant third with 24.3% of eligible voters.

There is a similar dynamic in U.S. politics where the Republican Party counts on voter apathy and abstention in its continuing effort to impose minority rule. Regarding the highly contested 2020 U.S. presidential election, Biden won 34% of eligible votes and Trump 31%, with 33% of the eligible voters declining to vote. Thus in the disputed U.S. election Trump did not come in second, but third.

The 67% turnout of the 2020 U.S. presidential election is low by Brazilian or Swedish standards but significantly higher than the 55% turnout in the 2021 Chilean election. Nevertheless, Boric’s supporters point to the 55% turnout as a validation of their candidate because it is the highest voter turnout in a Chilean election since 2012.

Gabriel Boric should be congratulated on his victory because his astute second round negotiation delivered the full support of all Center Left coalitions and brought 1.2 million new voters into the process in Boric’s favor. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that the 45.0% non-voting bloc represents a significant check on any future Chilean administration. At 6.8 million voters this bloc includes some of the 3.7 million Chileans who drove the 2019 Uprising against Chile’s neoliberal regime in which $3.5 billion USD in private property was destroyed. The Uprising’s primary demand was for an elected Constitutional Convention to write a new democratic Constitution for Chile. Faced with millions of angry citizens in the streets and billions of dollars in targeted property destruction, Right-wing president Sebastian Piñera granted the Uprising’s audacious request. Elections for a Constitutional Convention were held in May 2021.

It is important to realize that Left street protest and Left electoral politics operate in tension in Chile. During the 2019 Uprising observers saw protesters would not allow the display of banners or insignia by established Left political parties. This “leaderless” insurrection had no apparent central coordinating body. Rocio Lorca, University of Chile law professor and Boric supporter, said Boric’s signature of an “institutional solution” to the 2019 Uprising was done against the wishes of his activist base. Moreover, Boric’s support for the incarceration of arrested protesters enraged the activist street Left. Boric is an astute politician who makes calculated choices in the context of the current situation.  This situation was characterized by Chilean scholar Melany Cruz as follows, “Social movements are not going to go away. Whoever is in power will have to deal with these actors..The Uprising will start again.” Moreover, according to author Victor Figueroa Clark, “Social movements will keep tabs on the new government and hold them accountable.”

Thus there is a dual, but conflicted Left strategy at play inside and outside of state institutions in Chile. The prime leader of the inside strategy is Gabriel Boric and he is given high praise in this role. Chilean law professor Rocio Lorca says during the 2019 Uprising Boric was crucial to negotiating details of the new Constitutional Convention with the Right-wing Piñera government. The Constitutional Convention is under deadline to complete its work for a 2022 ratification by popular plebiscite. It will be Boric’s job as president-elect to see this happens. The current Piñera government has done little to assist the process and much to derail it. Rocio Lorca as a legal specialist is relieved that Boric won and and says this historic process is now “in good hands”.

Another significant challenge to Boric’s negotiating skills will be to win passage of a Left agenda through Chile’s current Congress. The four center Left coalitions control 51% of the 155 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. However, the 50 seat Senate is deadlocked with the Right controlling 25 seats. The Center Left controls 23 seats and must gain the support of 2 Independents to counter the Right. Boric will need every one of the Center Left votes he negotiated in the Dec 19 runoff to make headway with the current Chilean Congress. The threat of stalemated obstruction is real. In this, the outside strategy of the street Left comes into play. Although Boric does not control the outside strategy, Chilean youth and marginalized urban and rural populations can once again quickly throw themselves into forceful and militant protest when elites move to deny them basic needs. In the political stalemate and obstruction now afflicting the United States Congress it is noteworthy that forceful and militant street protest are missing and absence of progress is the clear result.

On balance, the Dec 19 Chilean election represents a turning point for a country that has weathered fifty years of political and economic assault from the neoliberal Right. For reference the background and context of the 2021 Chilean election include the following issues.

There is a legacy of decades of neoliberalism in Chile where the top 1% take 30% of the national wealth followed by the next 49% who are rewarded with two-thirds of the nation’s wealth. The latter is a good deal for Chile’s new ‘middle class’. Unfortunately, the bottom 50% of the population are left with only 2% of Chile’s income.

Chile’s vaunted ‘economic miracle’ covers up one of the highest levels of income inequality among OECD members. At $25,000 USD the national per capita income appears respectable but the fact is 70% of workers earn less than $7,400 USD per year.

In Chile all basic services are privatized, forcing Chileans to ‘purchase’ education, health services, even water. Working people resort to credit to make ends meet leaving Chileans with the highest household debt in Latin America. A significant portion of this is credit card debt. The current Right-wing president of Chile, billionaire Sebastian Piñera, made his fortune through the distribution of credit cards to the Chilean population collecting interest payments on people’s purchase of basic services.

Critical background to the social struggle in Chile today includes the growth of grassroots networks of mutual aid outside of government institutions and the 2019 “estallido social” (social explosion) where 3.7 million Chileans went into the streets in the largest protest in Chile’s history. Representing one out of every five people in the country Chile’s 2019 protest, on a proportional basis, was three times the size of the USA George Floyd protests. In what was termed a “leaderless” movement, protesting Chileans destroyed $3.5 billion USD in private property including the Santiago subway system where a fare increase sparked the initial protests.

A demand of the 2019 Uprising was a new Constitution to replace the neoliberal Constitution of 1980 imposed by Pinochet’s military dictatorship. In the May 2021 elections for a Constitutional Convention, the Chilean Right sought a blocking minority of one-third and the right of veto over all articles of the future Constitution. They were not successful. The 155 delegates were widely and directly elected by 65 different political organizations in several coalitions. In fact the Far Left won 35% of the delegates and thus obtained the blocking minority and right of veto over all articles. The Far Left and Center Left have 52% of all delegates and need to convince 25 of 39 independents to gain the 67% margin needed to win approval for their draft of the Constitution. This is achievable. In the Left-leaning Constitutional Convention it is noteworthy that 42% of the elected delegates are individuals with no party affiliation.

The Right wing candidate in the Dec 19 runoff election was José Antonio Kast. The Kast campaign was a backlash against the 2019 Uprising plus the ongoing feminist wave of struggle. Kast promised his supporters he would end mass mobilizations in Chile by increasing police violence. Kast implied, moreover, that he would persecute the progressive Chilean Left in the way Dilma Rousseff and Lula da Silva were removed from office and incarcerated in Brazil.

José Antonio Kast proposed deep ditches at Chile’s borders with Bolivia and Peru (as opposed to walls) to stop unwanted migrants. In the face of social protest Kast openly praises the brutal Pinochet dictatorship as Chile’s answer. Kast stokes fears of drug cartels and Indigenous rights activists to demand enhanced levels of state security. Kast speaks strongly against feminism, same sex relationships, and all forms of abortion. In these culture wars Kast partners with U.S. based Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) a legal advocacy group of the Religious Right.

Neoliberalism’s loss of credibility following the 2008 global crash has given rise to explosive anti-establishment feelings worldwide. In response, global elites have turned to the extreme Right and a politics of borders, authoritarianism, and social conservatism to maintain electoral coalitions. It is significant that Chilean voters when presented with a strong and familiar Right-wing narrative, rejected it by a margin of 74% on Dec 19. After 50 years could this represent a final crisis of legitimacy for the Chilean Right? Given Trump’s ongoing machinations, it is noteworthy that Kast conceded defeat quickly the same day. Could Chile represent an international turning point in the global crisis of neoliberalism?

The winning Left-wing candidate is Gabriel Boric, a former student leader and member of the Social Convergence party in the Frente Amplio coalition. Boric’s party are advocates of libertarian socialism, autonomism, and feminism. He campaigned on the slogan, “If Chile was the birthplace of neoliberalism, then it will also be its graveyard!” Boric was elected by a wide margin to head the larger Left electoral slate Apruebo Dignidad which includes the Communist Party of Chile. Given the youth, relative inexperience, and outsider status of the leaders of Frente Amplio, they have made concerted efforts to reassure the leaders of centrist political parties in order to secure their support in this election. There is a danger Boric and team will compromise with political centrists and will abandon the interests of the popular base who made the Uprising and who won the commitment to re-write Chile’s Constitution.

Three days before the runoff, Michael Chessum published an observation in the London Review of Books which visualizes a path forward for Chile.

The left faces a series of strategic dilemmas…It remains to be seen how far Boric will moderate his programme in the hope of winning over centrist voters. The young leaders of the Chilean left have to work out how to replace the establishment without becoming it.

As Chile’s inside Left work capably on institutional solutions, Chile’s independent social movements continue outside as a counterweight. We see a Left that endeavors to assimilate the hard lessons of history. A new generation has the stage in Chile. As we watch them work to fulfill Boric’s campaign slogan we are encouraged. “If Chile was the birthplace of neoliberalism, then it will also be its graveyard!”



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