Left-wing reformer defeats far-right candidate in Chilean presidential election
Left-wing reformer defeats far-right candidate in Chilean presidential election

As the sun began to fall in Santiago, Chile, on Sunday, the streets of the capital filled. Thousands celebrated the victory of 35-year-old former student leader Gabriel Boric over his extreme right-wing opponent, José Antonio Kast, in the second round of the country’s presidential election.

The vote was marked by a surge in turnout—1.2 million additional votes compared to the first round. Boric beat Kast 56 percent to 44 percent. With more than 55 percent of the eligible population casting a vote, it was the highest level of participation since voting became voluntary in 2012.

The election was another key moment in the highly polarised recent history of Chile, which was rocked by a popular rebellion in October 2019 demanding an end to 30 years of neoliberalism. The polarisation was expressed in a mass rejection of the traditional political class. In the first round, the centre-right Chile Vamos (Let’s go Chile) and centre-left Nuevo Pacto Social (New Social Pact) were relegated to fourth and fifth position respectively. For the first time since the return of democracy in the early 1990s, neither of the two major political coalitions will hold the presidency.

As a political outsider not from the traditional parties, Kast’s campaign focused on bringing stability back to the country. He combined vitriolic anti-immigrant policies with deeply conservative Christian values and a commitment to continuing the Chilean economic model, which has been marked by extreme inequality and the privatisation of public assets.

Kast, whose German father was a voluntary member of the Nazi party in the 1940s, and whose brother served as a president of the central bank during the Chilean dictatorship, has regularly praised Augusto Pinochet, the army general who ruled the country from 1973 to 1990.

While the victory of Boric is welcome in so far as it represents a rejection of the legacy of the dictatorship and a repudiation of the attempt to elevate a Trumpian, Bolsonarist figure, it is clear that the president-elect is both unable and unwilling to fulfil the demands of the October 2019 movement.

His electoral platform and messages are already proving to be contradictory. On the one hand, he proposes  left-wing policies such as higher taxes on the rich, greater social spending, ending the loathed private pension system and introducing higher royalties on the copper mining industry. But on the other hand, and especially after the first-round election in an attempt to woo centrist voters, he talks about maintaining credible and disciplined fiscal policy—code for restrained social spending.

This type of two-faced politics is typical of the role that Boric has played in Chile since October 2019. He was an instrumental figure in the Pact for Peace and a New Constitution, which channelled the revolt into an electoral path to a constitutional convention, successfully demobilising the street movement.

Even though a new constitution has long been a demand of popular movements in Chile, the agreement that was reached to redraft it was restrictively conservative, which is exactly why it was agreed to by conservative billionaire President Sebastián Piñera, whose term expires in March. Importantly, the agreement among the political class came as a general strike paralysed large sections of the country and there was a genuine chance of Piñera being forced to resign.

Boric portrays himself as one who will meet the demands of that movement, which had as one of its key slogans “Fuera Piñera” (Out Piñera). But when an opportunity arose to challenge the establishment, he chose instead to save it.

This commitment of the reformist left to formally unite with the right led the rebellion to greater institutionalisation through the constitutional convention, which has only just begun—more than two years later—and has resulted in a growing sense of disillusionment among many who participated in it.

“The policy of the parliamentary left of not following through on the rebellion, gave oxygen to a sort of ‘institutional respect’, which, combined with the deepening economic crisis and a reactionary anti-immigrant response, allowed for the rise of a proto-fascist figure”, Joaquín Araneda, a leader in the Anticapitalist Movement, says via email.

With a mass street movement no longer controlling the narrative in Chile, the political right, with Kast at its head, mobilised for the elections. With a great deal of hope, and many illusions, in the new left-wing president, wavering and concessions on the part of Boric will likely cede more political ground to the right, which, despite losing the elections, has a newfound sense of confidence.

The growth of the far right has been accompanied by a partial realignment among the traditional parties. After such a ferocious rejection of the traditional political class, a number of new coalitions were formed or reconfigured. Boric’s coalition Apruebo Dignidad (Approve Dignity), for its part, includes in it Frente Amplio (Broad Front) and the Communist Party.

The election has also brought a new composition to the Congress, which will likely challenge even modest proposals for economic and political reforms. The Chamber of Deputies will be divided essentially into thirds, with none of the major groups holding a majority. In the Senate, Piñera’s coalition gained five seats to form the largest block, which, together with the lone senator from Kast’s Republican Party, will control half the floor.

“It’s evident that two years on from the rebellion the Agreement for Peace and a New Constitution prevails, but they are unable to close the period that it opened up”, Araneda says.

“The reconfiguration of the centre-left that Boric and the Frente Amplio now lead will show its limits. At the same time, the economic crisis is deepening and the mass movement still has not been defeated. Therefore, a government of the Frente Amplio and Communist Party, in intrinsic alliance with the ex-Concertación will face the problem of who pays for the crisis in a context of polarisation.”

Concertación, the Coalition of Parties for Democracy, formerly was the dominant centre-left group in the country. Its candidates won every presidential election from the end of the dictatorship until 2010.

Ultimately, Boric’s presidency looks set to be caught between two irreconcilable visions for the future of Chile. One vision has been forged through a mass movement of workers and students seeking to put an end to 30 years of harsh neoliberal policies that turned Chile into one of the world’s most unequal societies. The other is that of a capitalist elite who view their country as a Latin American bastion of stability and profits.

Boric lies somewhere in between these two visions. It is clear, however, that his commitment to the rule of law and respect for Chile’s institutions and political processes will ultimately serve the interests of the ruling class.

Almost immediately after his victory, Boric attempted to create a sense of unity with both Kast and Piñera. “Thank you, Mr President, it’s an honour for me to be able to speak with you”, he said over the phone to Piñera on election night. “I also received a call from candidate José Antonio Kast, which says a lot about our democracy, something we must strengthen among us all.”

The next day he went a step further and met in person with both Piñera and Kast—a gesture to the capitalists that they can expect a smooth transition from one political class to another, despite Chilean society’s deep polarisation.

More than two years after the rebellion of October 2019 expressed the demands of millions, and despite a constitutional convention and the election of a former student leader promising to meet those demands, the new political constellation at the top seems unlikely to deliver much in the way of genuine social transformation.

The best hope for the Chilean working class lies not in the institutions that it cannot control, but in reigniting the struggle that started the whole process of political realignment in the first place.

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