World Affairs: Chile

As the Left triumphs in Chile, Gabriel Boric becomes new President

Print edition : January 14, 2022

Gabriel Boric at a campaign rally in Santiago on December 16. Photo: Rodrigo Garrido/REUTERS

Boric addressing supporters after the election results were announced, in Santiago, on December 19. Photo: JAVIER TORRES/AFP

President Salvador Allende, whose government was overthrown by the military coup led by Augusto Pinochet on September 11, 1973. Photo: AP

General Augusto Pinochet, whose repressive military rule responsible for the death of Salvador Allende and the killing, torture and imprisonment of thousands of Chileans. Photo: AP /SANTIAGO LLANQUIN

Chile’s new President, Gabriel Boric, is the youngest and most radical leader elected since the legendary Salvador Allende. His coalition, “Apruebo Dignidad” (Approve Dignity), which enjoys the support of the working class, the youth and ethnic minorities, has pledged to undo the neoliberal economic model and form an inclusive, youth-driven government to rectify the inequality in Chilean society.

Despite predictions of a close race, the candidate of the Left, Gabriel Boric, scored a decisive victory over his right-wing rival, Jose Antonio Kast, in Chile’s run-off presidential election held on December 19. In the first round held in late November, Kast had narrowly defeated Boric, getting more than a quarter of the votes polled. Chilean pollsters, who had predicted that Boric was the overwhelming favourite in the first round, got it wrong in the second round when they forecast that the race was too close to call. Some polling companies even predicted a victory for Kast. In the end, Boric won with a commanding 11-point lead.

At the age of 35, Boric, who earned his political spurs as a fiery student leader, will be the youngest President that Chile has elected. Another millennial, Nayib Bukele, is the President of El Salvador. Boric, who will take office in three months, is also the most radical leader Chile has elected since the time of the legendary President Salvador Allende.

Boric rose to prominence during the student uprising against neoliberal education policies in 2011. The uprising known as the “Chilean winter”, which lasted for three years, was a turning point in the politics of the country. The protest forced the government to grant free school education to students from low-income households. In 2014, Boric, already a nationally recognised figure, was elected to the Chilean parliament.

The younger generation of Chileans is disillusioned with the traditional parties that had dominated the politics of the country since the end of General Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. Boric, who views himself as a representative of the “new Left”, has been critical of the “status quo” that existed since the end of the military rule.

Also read: Chileans take to the streets to celebrate leftist Gabriel Boric's victory

In the first round of the election, both the traditional centre-left and centre-right blocs that had alternated in power since 1980 were rejected by the voters. An independent candidate, Franco Parisi, came third in the first round, overtaking the candidates of the traditional centre-right and centre-left blocs. The popularity of the current President, Sebastien Pinera, sank below 20 per cent. He was briefly in danger of being impeached by the country’s legislature.

Like the Popular Unity government led by Allende, the coalition assembled by Boric, known as “Apruebo Dignidad” (Approve Dignity), has the support of the working class, the youth and ethnic minorities. The President-elect has promised to undo the neoliberal economic model that the country had adopted since the military took over more than five decades ago, which has resulted in Chile having the most unequal society today in Latin America.

Massive voter turnout

In his victory speech, Boric especially thanked the women of Chile for turning out in massive numbers to vote in his favour. He pledged that women would be “the protagonists” in his government, which he said “would leave behind once and for all the patriarchal inheritance of our society”.

In the run-off election, an additional 1.2 million Chileans (amounting to 56 per cent) came out to cast their votes. It was the highest turnout since the system of mandatory voting was lifted in 2012. It is obvious that most of these votes went to Boric. Many of his supporters in far-flung rural areas could not cast their votes as the government deliberately did not provide transport facilities for them to travel to distant polling stations. In his victory speech, Boric said that many people who wanted to vote and tried to vote could not do so because of lack of transportation. “This cannot happen again,” he said.

Also read: The Left making a comeback in Latin America

The hope is that Boric will be able to repay the debt the Chilean people owe to the legacy of Allende. After his victory, Boric paid special homage to Allende and “those like him who came before us”. He said that Allende’s “dreams for a better Chile are what we will continue to build together”.

Boric’s campaign platform included the promise of expanding health care and the pensions system. The private pensions system introduced during Pinochet’s dictatorship was one of the hallmarks of the country’s neoliberal economic reforms. Boric’s progressive agenda for structural reforms also lays emphasis on environment-friendly policies. On the campaign trail, he promised to block a proposed copper mining project. There were protests against the expansion of copper mining by environmental groups as well as local residents. Chile is the world’s biggest exporter of copper. Boric has pledged to recognise the rights of the indigenous groups and the community of LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer]. These issues were particularly divisive during the election campaign.

Widening class divide

Boric campaigned all around the country for months, pledging to form an inclusive, youth-driven government to rectify the inequality in Chilean society. Chile continues to be touted as a development model for Latin America by the West. The free-market model, which was set up under the supervision of the “Chicago School”, comprising neoliberal economists from the United States, may have boosted economic growth but has at the same time widened the class divide.

In his victory speech, Boric said: “We are a generation that emerged in public life demanding that our rights be respected as rights and not treated like consumer goods or a business. We know that there continues to be justice for the rich and injustice for the poor, and we no longer will permit that the poor keep paying for the price of Chile’s inequalities.” The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean estimated that nearly a quarter of Chile’s total income goes to 1 per cent of its population. Chile’s central bank estimated that on an average, three-fourths of household incomes were used to service debts.

The public health system is in a very bad shape, as the Chilean government’s inadequate response to the pandemic has illustrated. The meagre pensions that Chileans get after retirement have led to many of them continuing to take up odd jobs. “Today many older people are working themselves to death after backbreaking labour all their lives,” Boric said during the final debate before the elections. “This is unfair.”

Also read: Fire in the Plains, Fire in the Mountains

Kast, the candidate of the right, is an avowed fan of Pinochet and the repressive military junta responsible for the death of Allende and the killing, torture and imprisonment of thousands of Chileans. The Chilean people have not forgotten the despicable role of the U.S. government in the events that led to the military coup. It was Allende’s attempt to nationalise the country’s lucrative copper industry and institute radical economic reforms to help the poor that led to the violent military coup of September 11, 1973. September 11 is as significant to Chile as it is to the U.S. Chile was the first country in Latin America to break away from U.S. dominance after the election of Allende. After the CIA-inspired coup led by Pinochet, Chile came to be counted as one of the U.S.’ closest allies in the region.

On the campaign trail, Kast did not bother to hide his far-right views on economic and social issues. He strongly opposed the demands of the minority ethnic groups and the concept of same-sex relationships. He was the only candidate who opposed the drafting of the new Constitution that is underway.

Chileans voted overwhelmingly in May this year to replace the 1980 Constitution drafted before the Pinochet era ended. After Boric’s victory, Chileans were seen waving banners in Santiago and other cities with the words “Goodbye General” and “Erasing your Legacy will be our Legacy”. That legacy can now truly be erased with the victory of Boric, as another plebiscite to approve the new draft Constitution will be held in 2022. The new Constitution is expected to be a radical break from the past. Two-thirds of those elected to rewrite the Constitution belong to the Left. Feminists, LGBTQ groups and ethnic minorities like the Mapuche now have a say in the drafting of the new Constitution. A victory for Kast would have dealt a fatal blow for the ratification of the new Constitution.

Trump as role model

Kast’s contemporary role models were Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. His campaign slogan, echoing Trump’s, was “Make Chile Great Again”. He renamed the party he founded the Republican Party of Chile. Kast, son of German immigrants with Nazi sympathies, talked nostalgically about the long years of military rule under Pinochet. Kast turned the election into a deeply polarising one with his divisive rhetoric. Taking a page from Trump’s playbook, Kast said that if elected, he would build a ditch along Chile’s borders to keep out illegal immigrants from neighbouring countries. He said that he would further empower the security services to crack down on indigenous groups demanding rights to their lands.

One of Kast’s key campaign pitches was that Boric was a puppet of the Chilean Communist Party and that if elected, the candidate of the Left would ruin the economy of Latin America’s most stable and prosperous country and turn it into another Venezuela and Cuba. The election results, however, proved that the last thing the majority of Chileans want is a return to the dark and repressive Pinochet era.

Also read: Historic victory for the Left

With the opinion polls and the Chilean media predicting a fight that was neck and neck, Kast said before the elections that he could not visualise losing and even suggested that he would challenge the results in case Boric won. But to his credit, Kast immediately conceded defeat after Boric’s decisive victory. He promised the President-elect all cooperation and personally met with Boric at his political headquarters to congratulate him on his “grand triumph”. The outgoing right-wing President, Sebastien Pinera, also congratulated the President-elect and offered his full support during the three-month transition period. Latin American leaders were also quick to congratulate Boric on his victory. The former President of Brazil, Lula da Silva, said: “I am happy for the victory of Boric, a progressive politician who will build a better future for the people and our America by fighting inequalities and strengthening unity.” Argentinian President Alberto Fernandez said that the results showed the strength of the country’s institutions and the will of its people to move towards the goal of a more just and equitable society. Cuban President Miguel-Diaz Canal described Boric’s win as “historic”. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro described it as a victory against “fascism”. The Peruvian President, Pedro Castillo, also belonging to the Left, while hailing the election results, stressed that regional unity is needed to fight the inequality that plagues the region.

Boric is yet to announce his Cabinet. Chileans are waiting to see if the Communists who played an important role in his victory will be rewarded with important posts. The leader of the Chile’s Communist Party, Guillermo Tellier, said that the party had thrown its full weight behind Boric as “he was the only one who today can bring together a broad movement that will lead the people of Chile to prevent the rise of neo-fascism”.

Boric may not like to complicate relations with Washington at this juncture but he is an outspoken supporter of anti-imperialist causes, including the Palestinian issue. Restructuring the economy is his priority. He has an uphill task ahead as both the upper and lower houses of parliament are almost evenly split on ideological lines. In Chile, a two-thirds majority is needed to enact substantive reforms.

In his first official address to the nation a day after his victory, Boric pledged to “expand social rights” in the country but would do so with “fiscal responsibility”. He said that health care and pensions would be a priority but stressed that all these goals would be achieves without putting stress on the country’s “macro economy”.

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