By Yanis Iqbal – Dec 25, 2021
The 2021 presidential election in Chile has resulted in the victory of the Left candidate Gabriel Boric. With nearly 56% of the vote, he has won by a margin of more than 10 percentage points – most presidents had hitherto secured only four or five point leads. In absolute terms, this is a record majority, with some 4.6 million votes cast for Boric, putting him almost 1 million votes ahead of the pro-Pinochet candidate, Juan Antonio Kast, who obtained 44%. These electoral outcomes were marked by political polarization.
Coming from the Punta Arenas region, Boric is the son of parents of Croatian and Catalan heritage. While pursuing a law degree in Santiago, he threw himself into the “Chilean Winter” – the big student demonstrations of 2011 – becoming the leader of the University of Chile Student Federation (FECH). Initially a member of the Autonomous Left, he later joined the socialist formation called Social Convergence, which became a part of the coalition named Broad Front. The Broad Front is driven by a sincere commitment to social and environmental rights.
In the 2021 election campaign, Boric – now an experienced member of the Chamber of Deputies – stitched the Apruebo Dignidad (Approve Dignity) platform, whose composition has changed with the different stages of the election. In the first round, the coalition included the Broad Front and the electoral pact Chile Digno, constituted by the Communist Party, ecologists, feminists and the Christian left. In the second round, however, Boric widened this coalition, incorporating the Socialists, the center-left Party for Democracy, the Christian Democrats, and a few other centrist organizations.
Boric presented the Chilean citizenry with a clear plan, detailed in a 227-page document drawn up after consultations with some 33,000 people from all over the country. Inter alia, the programme focuses on: 1) creation of a universal health system; 2) construction of a national public pension system; 3) revitalization of public education; 4) taxation of the rich; 5) an increase in the share of copper revenues against multinational corporations; 6) regulation of the real estate sector and the building of 260,000 homes; and 7) inclusive education which respects sexual diversity.
Kast has come to represent the antithesis of Boric. His father, Michael, was a Nazi soldier who fled to Chile, while his eldest brother, Miguel, was a Chicago Boy who worked for the dictator General Augusto Pinochet, serving as the head of ODEPLAN (National Planning Office) during the 1970s, then as the Minister for Labor in 1980, and finally as President of the Central Bank in 1982. Kast entered politics in 1996, first as a city council member in Buin, then as a representative to the Chamber of Deputies for four consecutive terms.
He was a prominent leader of Independent Democratic Union (UDI), founded in 1983 by the Pinochet adviser Jaime Guzman. In 2016, he left the party in search of greener pastures, working with the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) – an organization founded by the American lawyer Alan Sears – to bring together a global summit of the most reactionary, hardline right-wing politicians. In 2019, he launched the Republican Party – a party which has no program, only “guiding principles.” Most of these are absurd. Consider, for instance, the following: the party “believes in the Good and the Truth as objective realities.”
The lack of a coherent vision is filled by Kast’s unyielding fealty to Pinochetist arrangements and solutions. He has promised to lower corporate taxes; abolish the Women’s ministry; eliminate funding for the museum in memory of the victims of the dictatorship; withdraw Chile from the International Commission of Human Rights and close down the National Institute of Human Rights; exit the United Nations; erect barriers at the border with Bolivia and Peru to stop illegal immigration; stop the activities of the prestigious Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO); and establish an organization tasked with identifying and arresting “radicalized troublemakers”.
In the first round of the presidential elections, which drew 47% of the electorate to the polls, Kast won a majority with 1.96 million votes (28% of votes cast). Boric came close second, with 1.8 million votes. Cognizant of the low turnout in the first round, the Apruebo Dignidad campaign doubled down on its organizational efforts, pushing the national turnout to 55% and gaining a wide advantage in working class districts. While wealthy districts saw on average a 4 points-increase in votes, poor urban districts reached a 10-point increase. Overall, there were 1.25 million more votes cast in the second round.
Voter participation would have been greater had it not been for the actions of transport minister Gloria Hutt Hesse who – in the hope of undercutting Boric’s electoral base – prevented public transport services from reaching the poor barrios. On Election Day, people had to wait for two or even three hours for buses to polling centers. However, such efforts failed to destroy the determination and hope of the poor Chilean. In Santiago – where voter suppression tactics were most widely deployed – Kast won in only the three richest communes.
The Santiago pattern is symbolic of Kast’s general support base. Unable to turn the working class to the Right, he has used vitriolic rhetoric to grow in the north and center-south of the country – areas affected by rising migration and by the oppressionof the Mapuche community. Kast’s ultraconservative rhetoric has also performed well in small cities, rural areas, and among certain segments of those over 50 years old – groups that tend to be hostile to the diffusion of progressive cultural ideas, such as feminism or the rights of sexual minorities.
Debates on the Future Path
For many on both sides of the political spectrum, Chile’s socialist triumph over an openly fascist figure is devoid of anti-imperialist radicalism. This an upshot of Boric’s unjustified criticism of the left-wing administrations in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba. Jorge Castaneda Gutman, a former Mexican Foreign Minister, has rehearsed his old notion of “two distinct political ‘lefts’: a moderate, democratic, globalized, modern left, and an anachronistic, statist, nationalist, and authoritarian left.” While the former is exemplified by Michele Bachelet in Chile, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, and the center-left Broad Front government in Uruguay, the latter is exemplified by Hugo Chavez-Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, and the Castros in Cuba.
According to Castaneda, “Boric might not govern like a typical Latin American left-wing populist. Instead, he might operate more like a European social democrat”. This good-bad binary is paradoxically reproduced by the anti-imperialist journalist Ben Norton: “The ‘Pink Tide is coming back in Latin America’ narrative is too simplistic. What we’re seeing is two poles: a revolutionary anti-imperialist left (Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia) and a social-democratic left (Argentina, Mexico, now Chile) that’s weak on US neocolonialism.” This type of dichotomous thinking hardens the variances within the Latin American Left, elevating them to a stark choice between “reform” or “revolution”, or a knee-jerk difference between “good” and “bad” leftism. In response to these framings, Tom Chodor argues that the two Lefts need to be “understood dialectically, in terms of the potentials for radical transformations that arise out of their interaction.”
In other words, while Chile may be more comfortable with the readjustment of relations with the US rather the rejection of imperial power, this process itself creates a range of potentials that might develop in ways suitable to the more radical politics on display in other countries. “One can only speak in terms of potentials in this regard”, adds Chodor, “because the current phase of the struggle over hegemonic rule is only just beginning in Latin America, and its final outcome cannot possibly be known. Nevertheless, the very existence of this struggle, and the consciousness of alternative futures it has raised among millions of previously excluded peoples…cannot be ignored in any comprehensive analysis of…the Latin American region”.
It is this kind of dialectical analysis which allows him to formulate “the pink tide” as “a contested phenomenon, an object of social struggles in a process Gramsci would recognize as a ‘war of position’. Within this war of position, different social forces put forward alternative political, economic and social projects – ‘historical blocs’ – that seek to respond to the organic crisis of neoliberalism”. Thus, we need to look at the inner spirals of Chile’s presidential elections, the evolving tensions of class sinews which impart an undecided character to the ultimate texture of the new government. No easy predictions can be made since Chile has entered a radically different era, one in which major decisions will be made not by a politically unhindered ruling elite presiding over a passive population but by multiple social forces who have just regained their agency. Thus, in the current conjuncture, we need to show solidarity with the Chilean project so that it can find its way through the open-ended dynamics of history.
Featured image: Chile’s President-elect Gabriel Boric delivers a speech on stage as he celebrates with supporters after winning the presidential election in Santiago, Chile, December 19, 2021. Reuters/Rodrigo Garrido
Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at email@example.com. His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Turkey and several countries of Latin America.
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