Chile at the crossroads between past and future
In a nail-biting run-off election in December 2021, Chile elected its youngest and most unconventional president ever. As he named his future cabinet in January 2022, president-elect Gabriel Boric confirmed his strong connection to the rights agendas of the social movements from which he comes. When Boric takes office in March, hopes for change will face a series of challenges – kickstarting a pandemic-stricken economy, mitigating the distrust of key economic players, getting legislation passed by a fragmented Congress. But Boric’s paramount challenge will be to figure out how much change Chile has bargained for, and to live up to the expectations placed in him.
A decade ago he was a protesting student leader demanding free, high-quality education for all on the streets of Santiago, seeking to change the system from the bottom. Today, aged 35, he has been elected to sit at the top of that system’s institutional structure, in the hope he will wield the levers of power to introduce the reforms he once demanded on the streets.
In a high-stakes presidential runoff vote, held on 19 December 2021, Gabriel Boric became president-elect of Chile. He will be the youngest president in Chilean history, and possibly the youngest among the cohort of millennial Latin American politicians who have recently started to rise in their countries. His recently announced cabinet includes seven members under 40.
Change in progress
But it’s not just a matter of age: Boric represents change in multiple ways.
Unlike his predecessors, he grew up in a democracy. He was in preschool when General Augusto Pinochet left power, so he has little personal experience of dictatorship, but he’s made it his mission to help Chile leave Pinochet’s legacy behind. He played a prominent role in negotiations leading to the agreement to launch a new constitution-making process, and as president, he will oversee the final stages of the drafting of a new constitution that will finally replace the dictatorship-era one.
Boric is different from conventional politicians in both form and content. He refuses to wear a tie, which he has called ‘the most useless invention in the history of humanity’. He speaks openly about his OCD and wants to foster public conversation around mental health issues that are still taboo.
The leftist politics he has helped forge is devoid of nostalgic affection for the authoritarian regimes of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, but instead strongly connected to contemporary struggles for rights, notably rights to health and education, women’s rights, the rights of LGBTQI+ people, Indigenous peoples’ rights and environmental rights.
That’s reflected in the cabinet announced on 21 January: a notably young and highly skilled group that is 60 per cent female. Among its 14 women members are Izkia Siches, a 35-year-old doctor who gained prominence under the pandemic, who will be the first woman to serve as Interior Minister, and Antonia Urrejola, who recently stepped down as president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and who will head the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Socialist congresswoman Maya Fernández, who carries a powerful symbolic aura as the grandchild of Salvador Allende, the Socialist president deposed by Pinochet in 1973, will lead no less than the Defence Ministry. Meanwhile another former student protest leader, Camila Vallejo, will be presidential spokesperson.
Time and again Boric expressed his desire to sweep away not only the political structures bequeathed by the dictatorship, but also its economic model. When he won the primaries he stated, ‘If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism in Latin America, it will also be its grave’.
But a tightly contested second electoral round forced him to move towards the centre and broaden his alliances. This is reflected in the composition of his cabinet, which many see as relatively moderate. It includes several independents and people linked to the Socialist Party that was once the backbone of the centre-left governments that followed the end of dictatorship. One of its most veteran members is Finance Minister Mario Marcel, current president of the Central Bank and a symbol of macroeconomic stability.
As Boric has often put it, he is part of a generation that entered politics not through political parties but through social movements. His is a generation that, despite feeling at ease on the streets, soon realised protest alone was not enough: they also needed to claim space in institutional decision-making processes. This acknowledgment propelled Boric to transition from student union leader to a seat in Congress.
Other protest leaders made similar journeys. What nobody expected is that any of them would reach the top of the ladder so soon. The question now is, will Boric change Chile, or did he get elected because Chile has already changed?
More questions than answers from the first round
Held on 21 November, the first round saw Boric come second, with 25.8 per cent of the vote, just two percentage points behind hardcore right-winger José Antonio Kast, a much smaller difference than pollsters predicted.
While a runoff competition between Boric and Kast was expected, the biggest surprise came from US-based business leader Franco Parisi, who campaigned online without ever setting foot on Chile, placing third with 12.8 per cent of the vote.
With new and unconventional forces rising, the picture was one of decline for candidates of the broad coalitions people used to vote for. Coming fourth was Sebastián Sichel, leading a right-wing coalition that included incumbent president Rafael Piñera’s party of origin. The centre-left fared no better: current Senate president Yasna Provoste placed fifth. Together, the two coalitions that ruled Chile for three decades since the end of dictatorship could not command even a quarter of votes.
People communicated a demand for change. But they also signalled disaffection. In this high-stakes election, under half of eligible voters voted.
VOICES FROM THE FRONTLINE
Alberto Precht is executive director of Chile Transparente, a civil society organisation that promotes transparency in public and private institutions and the fight against corruption. In the run-up to the runoff vote, he drew attention to high rates of abstention.
What is most striking is that between 50 per cent and 60 per cent of Chileans do not show up to vote. This makes the election results very uncertain.
It is paradoxical, because in the current context one would have expected a higher turnout. The 2021 election for the constitutional convention was the most important election since 1988, and turnout did not reach 50 per cent. The only vote that exceeded that threshold was the 2020 plebiscite, with a 51 per cent turnout, but that was different because it was a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote. This low turnout was striking, because although no one expected an 80 or 90 per cent turnout, as was the case in the historic 1988 plebiscite that said ‘no’ to the Pinochet dictatorship, turnout was expected to be closer to 60 per cent.
In Chile there is a structural problem of low participation. In part, this has to do with the fact that voting is voluntary, but it also because the political offer is not very attractive. Although the offer has changed a lot and the latest reform in the system used to elect parliamentarians has allowed for greater pluralism, this has not been enough to motivate people to vote. The latest elections have been a rollercoaster and therefore very hard to analyse; the only certainty we have is that at least 50 per cent of Chileans do not feel represented in the electoral system.
Some legal reforms are already being introduced. The national plebiscite that will take place in 2022, where people will say whether they agree with the new constitution, is going to be a mandatory vote. Additionally, the vote is going to be organised in a georeferenced way, so that people will be able to vote at a polling place within walking distance of their residence.
This is not a minor detail: in Chile, voting places are not assigned according to place of residence, so people, especially low-income people, must take a lot of public transport to get to the polls. Even though it doesn’t cost them money, because it’s free, they have to invest the whole day in going to vote, which many can’t do. These changes will increase participation rates, but it will be very difficult for Chile to reach 80 per cent participation in the short term.
The big questions that no one has been able to answer are who the people who don’t vote are and what they think. Between the constituent convention elections and the presidential election there seems to have been a turnover of voters. Younger voters showed up to vote in the constitutional convention elections, while older voters tended to participate more in the presidential election.
This is an edited extract of our interview with Alberto Precht. Read the full interview here.
In addition to high abstention rates, the first round showed a major fragmentation of voters’ preferences. This was observed not only in the presidential contest, but also – and with lasting consequences – in the concurrent legislative election.
As a result of this vote, President Boric will have nothing close to a working majority in the 2022-2026 legislature. His coalition, I Approve Dignity (Apruebo Dignidad), claimed 37 out of 155 deputies and four out of 55 senators – far fewer than the 53 deputies and 12 senators of the right-wing coalition Chile We Can (Do) More (Chile Podemos Más). The new Congress is going to be tricky to navigate for the new president.
In the runoff, Boric received the highest number of votes ever collected by a presidential candidate in Chile. The importance of this vote was also reflected in a higher turnout: the highest in such a vote since the restoration of democracy.
Until the end, pollsters had predicted an impossibly tight finish. While Boric remained front-runner in the three main opinion polls, predictions were complicated by the fact that large numbers continued to claim they were undecided, and by the difficulty of estimating turnout.
For the Boric campaign, working to boost turnout was key. Much effort was put into attracting to the polls people disenchanted with politics who hadn’t believed it was worth the effort, while also making sure those who were happy with the progress that saw protest resulting in the development of a new constitution did not stay away thinking victory was assured.
Having emerged from social movements, this new cohort of progressive politicians did not expect social mobilisation to translate into electoral support automatically. As indicated by Boric’s political adviser Giorgio Jackson, it was key to avoid the danger of excessive optimism. In Brazil and the USA, it once seemed impossible that people like Jair Bolsonaro or Donald Trump could win, and not enough was done to prevent their rise. The same mistake would not be made in Chile.
In the democratic era, parties and candidates from the right have won elections by distancing themselves from Pinochet’s legacy. But Kast broke with custom, openly vindicating the dictatorship on the campaign trail. He defended the 1980 constitution and consistently refused to back the new constitution development process.
He knew that for the runoff he had to appear as more moderate and made a half-hearted attempt to position as a ‘common-sense candidate’, but there was not much he could do about his history: he remained brother of a former adviser to Pinochet and son of a German migrant who served in the Nazi army.
Twenty years Boric’s senior, a Catholic conservative and the father of nine, Kast actively opposed women’s sexual and reproductive rights and progress on LGBTQI+ rights. He was the only candidate among the many who competed in November vowing to maintain the dictatorship-era private pension system, defying the demands for reform of successive waves of protest. He pledged to reduce public spending and lower taxes, eliminate several ministries and public institutions, including the Women’s Ministry and the National Institute of Human Rights, and cancel the compensation awarded to victims of dictatorship-era human rights violations. He proposed to deploy the armed forces to deal with Indigenous conflict in the southern region of La Araucanía, increase prison sentences for common crimes and dig a ditch at Chile’s borders to prevent migrants from getting in.
It’s hard to imagine being undecided in the face of two agendas as opposed as those of Boric and Kast: one founded on egalitarian, feminist and environmental values and the other centred on conservative social values, order and security.
Media coverage didn’t help. Much of the mainstream media pushed a misleading narrative of polarisation, presenting the vote as some sort of ‘impossible choice’ between two ‘equally bad extremes’: so-called ‘venezuelisation’ versus fascism. This was hardly something that could help undecided voters engage with the substance of what the candidates were offering.
The reality was that with a decades-long trajectory in institutional politics, Kast was less of an anti-establishment politician than he wanted to appear. But he had given himself little room to manoeuvre, as his strident first-round campaign had been a decisive turn-off for many moderate voters.
The results bear out that Boric did a much better job of appealing to the moderate vote, not only by softening the edges of his programme but also because he was no extremist to begin with. A week before the November election, when the Chilean Communist Party – a member of the coalition backing Boric – congratulated Nicaragua’s authoritarian president, Daniel Ortega, on his fraudulent re-election, Boric made clear that his commitment to democracy was genuine and he had nothing in common with repressive regimes such as Nicaragua’s and Venezuela’s. He continued to make this point. And it seems the majority believed him.
The challenges ahead
Boric’s agenda is ambitious, seeking to respond to an accumulation of unfulfilled expectations to change a system that made the economy grow for decades but privatised public goods, increased economic inequality and denied opportunities to the majority. His plans include a wealth tax, a public pension system to replace the private one, student debt forgiveness, increased investment in public education and healthcare, broader abortion rights, the establishment of a public childcare system and a system of care for older and sick people, and recognition of Indigenous communities’ territorial claims.
Upon taking office with this big list on 11 March, President Boric will face several key challenges. He will have to deal with a pandemic-stricken economy while mitigating the distrust expressed by key economic players. To get legislation passed by the fragmented Congress, he will have to cross the ideological divide and build further bridges with several parties that ultimately backed him in the runoff.
But his paramount challenge will be to live up to the expectations he has created – which will require a better understanding of what exactly they are, including among those who were always with him, those who were won over in the runoff and those who still have their doubts. There will be change – but how profound, it is too early to tell.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The new government should continue to connect with, seek inspiration from and enable movements demanding rights and seeking social justice.
The new government must repeal and replace existing laws that restrict civic freedoms – particularly those criminalising protests and enabling police brutality – as soon as possible.
The political right and key economic players should commit to working constructively with President Boric rather than simply trying to block any reform.
Cover photo by Marcelo Hernández/Getty Images