Boric and Kast
In the days after the first round of Chile’s presidential election, the mood amongst left activists in Santiago is bleak. José Antonio Kast, candidate for the far-right Christian Social Front received the largest share of the vote on Sunday, with almost 28%, while Gabriel Boric, candidate for the left coalition Apruebro Dignidad, received almost 26%. They will face each other in a second round run-off on 19 December. Polls predict a knife-edge result.
It’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years
Arriving in Santiago a fortnight ago, one thing quickly became clear. This is a country deep in political crisis. Clear enough from the fact that practically every inch of every building is covered in graffiti and posters, but unavoidable when walking past Plaza Dignidad on a Friday evening, when armoured vehicles, heavily dented, are chasing a handful of protestors through the streets, shooting water cannons and letting off tear gas. A weekly showdown, I’m told.
The current political moment is the latest chapter of a story that began in October 2019 with what people call “the social explosion”. When President Sebastián Piñera introduced a 30 peso fare hike on the Santiago metro, school students organised a mass fare boycott. The action ignited an eruption, and on October 25 the largest protest in Chilean history took place, with 1.5 million taking to the streets in Santiago and up to 3 million in total across the country. No group or party claims to have organised the protests; they were leaderless and organic.
So began months of near-constant protests, strikes and disruption, a lot of destruction - metro stations were burned down, churches destroyed, and heavy repression from the state. Forty people have been killed by armed police, and more than four hundred blinded, mostly by tear gas canisters shot directly into protesters’ faces. Between October 2019 and March 2020, 11,300 people were arrested, 2,500 imprisoned. Piñera declared a state of emergency and implemented a mandatory curfew, arguing that the government was at war. Despite the excessive state violence, the movement flourished with public assemblies meeting frequently in plazas up and down the country. It was here that people formulated their demand for a new constitutional process.
Piñera later withdrew the fare hike and announced that he was open to hearing the concerns of the protesters, but it was too little, too late. The protests continued unabated, demanding the resignation of the president, the rewriting of Chile’s Pinochet-era constitution and an end to the state of emergency.
A common slogan of the protests was “it’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years”. In the almost three decades since the Pinochet dictatorship ended, Chile has continued to experience neoliberalism in its purest form, and is today the most unequal country in the OECD. Private healthcare is the norm for anyone who can afford it, and the country’s privatised pensions are notoriously miserly.
Much of this regime is underpinned by Chile’s 1980 constitution, much of which has remained unchanged since it was created by the junta. In broad terms, anything that can be provided by the private sector has to be, and the state is only supposed to step in when companies fail. The state is forced by law, for instance, to fund the education of a private school pupil as much as it funds the education of a publicly education child - because not doing so would be “discrimination”. The end of this legal set-up will be, hopefully, a solid legacy of the recent social movements.
But there has been a backlash to the protests, too. Kast represents the legacy of the Pinochet era; in 2017, during the last general election, he ran on an openly Pinochetist platform, receiving 8 percent of the vote. For this election he has shifted towards a more broadly appealing political platform, but remains a far right candidate cut in the mold of Bolsonaro and Trump, promising to persecute communist and left activists, ban abortion in all circumstances, and to dig a ditch in the north of the country to keep out migrants.
Kast’s voter base brings together military and ex-military personnel, many of them from the Pinochet era who were never brought to justice following Chile’s transition to democracy; the evangelical right who have been mobilising in opposition to the new social movements, in particular the feminist and LGBTQ movements; and the rural poor who feel threatened by immigration in the north and the indigenous rights movement in the south. Perhaps most important of all, Kast claims to offer order and stability, in the wake of two years of unrest and then the disruption created by the pandemic, which seems to have won him votes even from people who might have initially been part of the uprising.
The left in Chile is a complicated tapestry of parties and coalitions. In brief, Gabriel Boric is standing for Frente Amplio (Broad Front, FA), an electoral coalition formed in 2017, which brings together a large number of groups ranging from the centre left to the far left. It traces its roots to the student revolts of 2011, and many of the coalition’s MPs, including Boric, were student organisers in that period. The Trotskyist left in Chile is separate and small, though not insignificant, and the FA’s political centre is informed primarily by social movements and by a generation of activists who wanted to create a more radical electoral alternative to the Communist Party (an ironic aim, say many activists now, given more recent developments).
Boric himself is from Social Convergence, a group that merged from three smaller autonomist and libertarian left groups; slightly to its right is Revolución Democrática, the largest group in FA’s parliamentary delegation, a more reformist coalition that tends towards left social democracy; and alongside them sit a handful of other left groups: UNIR, Commons and Common Force. The Liberal Party, who are openly centrist, split from FA when it began to work more closely with the Communists.
Although Frente Amplio was established on radical left principles, and (on paper at least) advocates for a transition to a socialist economic model, a number of activists that I have spoken to have been disappointed by what they see as a shift to the centre, under the guise of the politics of ‘respectability’. Activists from within the coalition accept that the electoral programme is at best a left social democratic programme, but the main bone of contention is a series of controversies during the ‘social explosion’ which stained Boric’s reputation with the radical left. For example, Boric - alongside MPs from Revolución Democrática - supported legislation in congress to criminalise the erection of barricades.
The key complaint, however, is that a majority of Frente Amplio MPs, Boric included, voted with Piñera’s government to create a process to draw up a new constitution. Many saw this as a measure to demobilise the street protests - and as lashing up with a government responsible for brutal repression against protestors. The deal offered by Piñera also stipulated that all elements of the new constitution needed to be agreed by two-thirds of the Constitutional Assembly, which people believed would mean that the process was bound to end up in a deadlock. A significant chunk of Social Convergence’s membership left the party over this in the midst of a fraught internal debate, and Boric was temporarily suspended from the party.
For this round of elections, Frente Amplio has entered into an electoral pact with the Chilean Communist Party (PCCh), under the name Apruebro Dignidad. Boric won a surprise victory against the Communist candidate, Daniel Jadue, in the primary last July to become the presidential candidate for the coalition. Numbering more than 50,000 members, the largest political party in Chile, the PCCh was between 2013 and 2018 a member of the governing “New Majority” (a coalition that included the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, both centrist parties), leaving following a turn towards the current, more radical electoral alliance.
The PCCh, much like the rest of Chile, is experiencing an upheaval. When the party leadership issued a statement earlier this month congratulating Daniel Ortega, the authoritarian Nicaraguan President, on his re-election, prominent Communist MP Camilla Vallejo, along with the official youth wing of the party, publicly dissented. Boric also issued a condemnatory statement, and the Communist Party leadership was forced to retreat, publicly stating that Boric would as President decide Chile’s foreign policy, even if it retained the right to dissent from it.
More broadly, a cultural shift is taking place within the PCCh, kicking against its internal hierarchy as well as its predilection for supporting authoritarian regimes. Even though factions are prohibited inside the party, and members can only exercise their democratic rights every four years at the party congress, this shift is very public and is being led by some of the PCCh’s star players, including its former Presidential candidate Daniel Jadue and Vallejo, among others.
The Chilean trade union movement has long been in decline. Under Pinochet trade unions were persecuted, all collective bargaining agreements were discarded and bosses could sack their workers without cause. It remains extremely easy for employers to target workers for trade union organising and union membership in Chile is very low.
But there have been important labour movement mobilisations recently. The antecedents of the October uprising, for instance, can be found in a student-worker movement against the neoliberal education system, that saw widespread student occupations and more than eighty thousand educators out on strike. It was the same generation of school students that would go on to organise the fare boycott that ignited the social explosion.
The activists that I have spoken to, both from Frente Amplio and the Communist Party, have acknowledged that their work within the unions is limited. The Communists have comparatively more worker members and, obviously, a more long-standing presence in the unions, but the workers’ movement is not nearly as high profile within the left as one might expect. Social movements (feminist, LGBT, environmentalist, etc.) appear to be the key building-blocs for the Chilean left’s recent rise. The focus on these issues is obviously a strength, but cannot in the long run compensate for the weakness of the labour movement.
A new, feminist constitution
In the end, despite all of the controversies and splits that have taken place on the Chilean left, the uprising has had a very clear institutional legacy: Chile’s constitution is being rewritten. In the elections for the Constitutional Convention held in April last year, left wing parties and (more substantially) a vast array of left-leaning or pro-reform independents, gained an 80% majority in the new body, overcoming the two-thirds rule which so many activists thought would be a fundamental barrier to change. Crucially, as part of the agreement that brought about the Convention, the constitution they are writing starts from a blank page, so anything they can’t agree on will simply be left open, rather than reverting to the current draft.
Perhaps the most important single element of Chile’s reawakening in recent years has been the feminist movement. As in the rest of Latin America, a new generation of women are fighting for their reproductive rights, and for a broader revolution in gender politics, in what is still, in comparison with western Europe, a deeply conservative society. A vast array of networks, circles and campaign groups constitute the movement - some focussed on direct action, others on clandestine, practical solidarity with those seeking abortions, others on the legal and constitutional questions.
The feminist movement had a significant impact on the protests (as well as the left more generally) and there is now a major push to make Chile’s new constitution a feminist one. The Convention itself was elected with a 50:50 gender quota, and if the feminist movement gets its way, future Congresses will be too. The aim is to get the state to recognise the value of care and domestic work and to remunerate it. Whereas Kast wants to criminalise abortion in all circumstances, there is a consensus among progressives that the constitution should enshrine reproductive rights. And with the balance of the Convention as it is, there is every possibility that these goals are attainable.
It would be wrong, however, to pretend that there are no problems within the left majority in the Convention. Some of the left independents were drawn from the feminist movement, and those representing left wing parties (around twenty per cent of the Convention) are in some way accountable to them. But a large number are mavericks: one was elected because she was famous for dressing up as Pikachu on protests. Another made a big deal of having cancer during his campaign - only to confess this September that he never had it.
While many of the new independents are very left wing and principled, there is a lack of organisation and experience which could create problems in the coming year. In order for any of the constitutional reforms to pass, they will have to be approved by referendum no later than September 2022. Already, there is a campaign by much of the media to paint the Convention as a squabbling, self-referential waste of time and money. If Kast wins in December, he will use the power of the Executive to sabotage its functioning and prevent its proposals from becoming a reality.
One obvious question is why the scale and ferocity of the recent protests hasn’t translated into an easy victory for the left in these elections. The problem, it seems, stems from a deep-rooted hostility to politics and politicians; there is a widespread belief that the political elite cannot be trusted, right or left. This feeling was so strong that Frente Amplio activists could not turn up to protests with their flags or banners without being forcibly expelled. This is a problem exacerbated by the fact that Frente Amplio’s leaders tend to be from the same social class as the centre-left politicians they claim to be an alternative to, having all attended the same, few elite universities.
And so, despite months of grassroots struggle, the left has not been able to give either leadership or direction to the political thrust of the movement. Although the practical demands of the movement have been progressive, their tone is not so much left-wing as anti-elite and anti-establishment. Kast draws his popularity from the backlash against the protests, and is now carrying the torch of the right wing establishment, but his rise is the product of the same political moment. Here, just as in the UK and US, the far right has managed to capture the anti-establishment mood.
Many left activists were hopeful in the run up to the first round, believing that there would be sufficient opposition to creeping fascism. But the fact that the torturers and criminals of the Pinochet era were not brought to justice (Pinochet himself remained Commander-in-Chief of the army until 1998, when he was sworn in as a senator-for-life) means that people have lived alongside the perpetrators from that era, and tolerated their continued presence in government for decades. It is perhaps unsurprising that far-right politics would seem so normal to so many people here.
Never before has a candidate won the presidency having lost in the first round, but there are reasons to still be hopeful of a Boric victory, albeit a very narrow one. Turnout was very low; more are expected to vote in the second round, which may well benefit the left. Polls are also suggesting that a significant portion of the votes for the third place candidate Franco Parisi - a total maverick who couldn't enter Chile to campaign, let alone vote, because he is being pursued by Chilean authorities for various financial misdemeanours - will transfer to Boric.
Even if Boris wins, however, his Presidency will not be plain sailing. Sunday also saw the election of the 155 members of the Chamber of Deputies, to serve a four-year term in the National Congress, and 27 of 50 senators, who will serve an eight-year term in the Senate. In the Senate, the right held onto its majority. The left did moderately well in the Chamber of Deputies, with a number of iconic candidates getting elected - including Fabiola Campillai, who was blinded by the police in the course of the protests, and Emilia Schneider, Chile’s first trans MP. But even here, the left will only have a majority if its measures can count on the support of the Socialist Party and Christian Democrats.
Nonetheless, the prospect of a Boric victory on 19 December would be a dramatic step forward and would be an enormously impressive achievement. Despite the persecution that its activists have suffered, despite the dismantling of the labour movement, and despite heavy and continuing state violence, the Chilean left is on the march and is in a position to win.