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Chile Shows How Social Movements Can Win Elections

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Yellow and orange tinted image showing people standing behind a metal barrier at a protest

Chileans’ commitment to replacing the country’s neoliberal constitution led to the inauguration of a young leftist president

Nearly 50 years after Chile’s democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende was ousted in a military coup, a young left-wing legislator rocketed into the country’s top office. Gabriel Boric beat his far-right opponent, José Antonio Kast, in the December 2021 runoff election. He owed his victory to a center-left coalition against the far right, energized by militant and persistent social movement organizing that has put the country on the road to a new constitution.

Just before the runoff, I represented the Democratic Socialists of America as an international delegate to meet with progressive forces deep in mobilization for an election in which—as in the US in 2020—everything was on the line. That trip was informed by my lifetime of traveling to Chile to visit my father’s family—so witnessing Boric’s nearly 10-point surprise win, after decades of struggle and inequality, was truly unforgettable.

Dictatorship enforced neoliberalism

The military dictatorship headed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet controlled Chile from 1973 to the end of the 1980s. The regime opened up Chile’s public sector as an experiment for privatization schemes such as stock market-based pensions and destroying higher education. While the country grew richer than its neighbors, this growth was tremendously unequal. In 2021 Chile was the country in Latin America that concentrated the highest level of wealth among the ultra-rich in relation to the size of its economy.

This is not to say there was no resistance to this gross unjust society. Chilean students led the way with their fight to undo the damaging effects of privatization of education. In fact, as in the United States, student debt is a major issue facing the younger generation of the country’s workers.

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But beyond student activism, for decades Chileans, especially from indigenous communities, have fought further robbery of their lands in the face of water projects and other capitalist operations. One of the new left-wing governors, Rodrigo Mundaca, comes from social forces in the Valparaiso region that fight against water shortages caused by intensive avocado farming and illegal pipes irrigating away from communities to private property.

The past 20 years also experienced the rise of gender and sexual justice activism that pushed against the heteronormative nature of Chilean society. Gains have been made around choice and marriage equality. Lastly, the threat of climate change impacts the long country that includes the driest desert in the world. Chile has only become more arid and is already heavily dependent on copper. Its lithium reserves could produce environmental catastrophe unless managed democratically, which Boric’s government seeks to do.

President Boric’s movement roots

President Gabriel Boric is a 36-year-old former student leader who first rose to prominence during the Chilean Winter, a 2011–13 youth uprising against neoliberal education reform that culminated in the last decade with him and other young leftists in the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) coalition winning congressional office alongside more historic left parties. Boric’s coalition, Apruebo Dignidad (Approve Dignity) has deep ties to popular movements new and old, not only the student movements but also the climate justice and feminist movements that have risen in the past few years.

Two old people facing into a park with signs on their back reading, "Grandparents support our grandchildren."
Participants in an “Acto Cultural” (a rally with speeches and cultural performances) supporting the Chilean student movement, April 21, 2012, Parque Almagro, Santiago. Their signs read “Grandparents support their grandchildren.” Photo by Clifton Ross

In November 2019, starting in the capital Santiago, a social uprising began ostensibly over a 30-peso-public transit fare hike. The unofficial slogan of the estallido social—roughly translated to mass social outburst—was that this was for “30 years, not 30 pesos.” This directly referenced three decades of the neoliberalism that was enshrined in Chile’s constitution even as de jure democracy returned. Millions expressed frustration with the inequality caused by decades of unregulated capitalism, and demanded, among other things, a new national legal framework.

 A few weeks after the uprising began, the major parties of Chile—notably excluding both the Communist Party and Kast’s Republican Party—reached an agreement intended to abate the mass mobilizations by setting up a process to create a new constitution.  The accord, which partly helped bring Boric to national prominence, didn’t do much to quiet the protests, and the plebiscite that was to be the first step in the process was delayed numerous times by the subsequent COVID pandemic.

When the referendum finally took place in October 2020, Chileans voted by nearly a four-to-one margin to replace the current constitution; in 2021, they elected 155 delegates to draft a new document.

Centrist coalitions discredited

The estallido social also signaled the discrediting of the mainstream coalitions that had ruled since the return to democracy around 1990—two coalitions made up of the Christian Democrats, social-democratic parties, and rarely the Communist Party or two major mainstream right-wing parties. In the first round of voting in the 2021 election, these two groupings finished with less than a quarter of the vote.

Chilean voters chose between seven candidates in that first round in November. By a three-to-one margin, they selected candidates from newly created parties. The two old-line candidates not only lost to Boric and Kast, but also to Franco Parisi—a newcomer excluded from the debates, partly due to him living in Alabama. (Some suspect he has not returned to Chile to avoid revealing his assets.) The runoff thus took place between two candidates in relatively new parties at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Kast, two decades Boric’s senior, is the son of a former German officer with ties to the Nazi Party. The ultra-right winger was the only major presidential candidate to stand against the constitutional process and continued to oppose abortion, gender, and sexual rights while Chile has liberalized laws on issues such as same-sex marriage.

Right-wing forces maintain a strong even if minority presence in the country. A growing evangelical movement has coincided with rising progressive cultural changes. This extreme bloc helped fuel a candidate such as Kast, who not only defended the legacy of the military junta and openly expressed fondness for the deceased dictator Augusto Pinochet, but espoused reactionary views on gender, choice, and religion. Unsurprisingly, Kast’s coalition was called the Christian Social Front—uniting his Republican party with the Christian Conservatives.

Of the seven candidates who ran in the first round, the three right-wing contenders held a slight majority of the votes. Furthermore, Boric had fallen second to Kast, and leaked polls (nothing can be published two weeks before the election) showed a dead heat for the second round.

The right threatens, but social movements come through

The week leading up to the election, I was very pessimistic about Boric’s chances, given his underperformance in the first round and the generally rising cynicism among Chilean voters. And the 2016 US presidential election had shown me how an inevitable candidate and modern polling methods could fail. But Boric won big. I hadn’t accounted for Chileans’ commitment to the constitutional process and age/demographic voting trends.

  • Turnout dramatically increased, from 47% in the first round to about 56% in the second round. A major reason for the uptick was Kast’s unequivocal opposition to the new constitution. He was the only first-round presidential candidate, including conservative and moderate ones, to oppose the constitutional process. As Chileans got to know him better, the threat of losing years of work to curtail neoliberalism became more real. Research showed that the more voters were reminded about Pinochet, the less likely they were to support Kast. The death of Pinochet’s widow shortly before Election Day probably hurt Kast, too, as she evoked her husband’s regime in which she was an active participant in the minds of voters.
  • Kast’s social conservatism also may have driven votes against him. Chile has recently moved to legalize gay marriage and has loosened up abortion restrictions over time. Also, youth turnout increased by nearly 10% between rounds. while senior turnout increased by only a few points. Exit polls showed 64% of young women voted, compared to about 30% for all genders over 70 years old. Of those women under 30, two-thirds voted for Boric. In many ways, voters were preventing reactionary politics and regression that could have reversed decades of struggle as much as they were endorsing Boric’s campaign of hope.
Graffiti in Spanish; translated, reads "Against Hate: Boric"
Election season graffiti. In English, “Against hate: Boric.” Photo by David Duhalde

Boric received the open support of the center-left parties and other major progressive candidates. But grassroots voter organizing and the mobilization of social movements were critical to his victory: the women’s, gender justice, climate justice and indigenous rights movements all came out for him. After the election, the Chilean press reported that Boric’s supporters engaged in community-based organizing and voter engagement to overcome their deficit in the first round. The momentum around fear of a Kast presidency and mobilization of sympathetic voters, combined with the unity of the organized left—both in and outside the electoral system—led to Boric’s 10-point triumph on the second presidential election day.

The center-left coalition which came to Boric’s aid was subsequently rewarded. His new cabinet includes members of the Socialist and Radical parties—two of the social-democratic parties that had long been in coalition with the centrist Christian Democrats. Some on the left were disappointed with Boric’s choice for finance minister, Mario Marcel, who had served in several center-left governments and was specifically chosen to placate the business community. This market-oriented choice alongside Communist leaders demonstrates the tensions and hopes of the new government as it tries to balance threats while remaining committed to social progress.

Election keeps new constitution on track

It’s impossible to separate Boric’s victory from the constitutional process; many voted for him in order to preserve the process started by the estallido social. Had Kast won, he would have been unable to stop the drafting, but could have used the bully pulpit of the presidency to push for a “no” vote in the national referendum to accept or reject the replacement. While the threat of Kast is now gone, other barriers remain to seeing the completion and success of a new magna carta for Chile.

The Left and independents dominate the 155-person group of delegates elected to draft the new constitution, so for now, there is hope that their proposal will be a progressive alternative to the contemporary document. Constitutional delegates decided to start with a clean slate and not bring over any copy from existing legal documents. This radical departure from Chile’s past includes discussions of eliminating the senate and nationalizing natural resources. Even under the dictatorship’s privatization schemes, the government never sold the copper mines nationalized under the early 1970s Popular Unity coalition. Chile’s dependence on these minerals for income inspires the desire to bring lithium and water under collective control.

The attention on the constitutional process has led to criticism from all political perspectives mixed with fake news, such as the story that the assembly seeks to eliminate the national anthem and flag. One concern is that the delegates are leaning towards more decentralization of government. Chile historically has had a strong president, who until only recently picked the governors of the regions (who now are elected). Further devolution of roles and taxation could make it harder for the state to generate revenue. The country is already heavily dependent on tariffs and exports of natural resources (minerals and agricultural products); lack of taxation of the wealthy could undermine the social programs of the future.

The right’s global playbook

One of the greatest challenges facing the incoming government is uniting Chileans, including newcomers, and combating a recalcitrant right. Over the past few years, Chile has received immigrants from countries such as Haiti and Venezuela by the hundreds of thousands. Disdain of migrants cuts across the political spectrum but emboldens the reactionary elements, who are ready to copy the global right.

These copycats don’t just stop at bigotry. Chilean far-right militants were pushing for Kast supporters to discredit ballots of Boric voters. In the end, Kast declined to seek this option, possibly because the margin was too wide, general faith in Chile’s election system was too strong, and the election was being administered by a right-wing government.  Perhaps he also lacked the shamelessness of his U.S. and Brazilian equivalents.

While Kast didn’t win, Barbara Sepúlveda, a Communist Party activist, reflected the long-term concern about the growing influence of the right, including the ability to find wedge issues, such as immigration, in Chile. While traditional conservative parties have collapsed, Kast’s Republican Party represents an embrace of the authoritarianism of the Pinochet era tied with trends of right-wing populism across the world. She noted how Trump’s solution to immigration was a wall and Kast proposed digging a ditch in the Chilean desert. Sepúlveda lamented that the right wing—not the Left despite our internationalism—seems to have a global playbook.

Overall, voters prioritized preserving the path toward a new constitution over the hate-filled campaign of Kast, which focused on immigration and crime. But those two issues remain and continue to be exaggerated by the right wing to undermine progressive policies. (Without concern for consistency, Kast has now turned on the same Venezuelan migrants he once welcomed to attack Bolivarian socialism.)

Days of hope, years of uncertainty

Boric’s new government will have to manage the high expectations of its base, militant opposition of its detractors, an eclectic Congress and evenly divided Senate. Furthermore, there are tensions within Apruebo Dignidad between the Communists and other coalition partners over cabinet selections such as Marcel. The Communists view the inclusion of Marcel as a continuation of neoliberal economic policy. There are three Communist Party members in Boric’s incoming cabinet—the same number of traditional social-democratic parties that were not in the Apruebo Dignidad. Boric’s Frente Amplio and his own Convergencia Social Party have nearly triple the amount of cabinet posts as either the Communists or former ruling center-left parties.

Concerns over neoliberalism dominating the economic policy reflect the fears that the new government will not be able to truly break with the current social order. Boric’s government hopes to seek policy solutions outside of the market, such as nationalizing lithium and creating a public option for healthcare. But if these become a reality, they will be shaped by the divided Congress, the dynamism of the social movements, and the direction of the constitutional process.

It’s impossible to predict how the constitution will turn out and what the popular reaction to it will be. Nor can we know how Boric’s actions and decrees will be received and implemented. But we understand this is a critical moment to implement real progressive and lasting change in Chile. The world is watching and it’s up to friends of economic and social justice to stand with our Chilean comrades to support their project in becoming a success.

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