On the night of 19 December 2021, in front of tens of thousands of supporters, Gabriel Boric, the presidential candidate of a left and centre-left parties’ coalition, gave his victory speech after defeating the far-right candidate José Antonio Kast in the run-off. In his address, he pledged to guard the country’s ongoing constituent process and to further social rights in areas where the dominant paradigm sees only consumer goods. At the same time, and seeking to expunge a possible generational arrogance, he identified himself as an heir to the long historical trajectory of struggles for social justice and ended by paraphrasing Salvador Allende’s victory speech delivered in the same place on the night of September 4, 1970.
At just 35 years of age, Boric became the youngest president in Chilean history. More significantly, this happened only ten years after he became a national public figure after winning the presidency of the student federation of the University of Chile in 2011. One way to begin to understand the confusing Chilean politics of the last decade is to see 2011 and 2021 as inextricably linked.
In 2011 Chile experienced the largest social mobilisations since the return to democracy. These were led by a university student movement that revolted against the commodification of education and stood for free education altogether. Although these protests cannot be understood without considering the massive mobilisations of secondary school students in 2006, it was the protests of 2011 and 2012 that operated as a critical juncture prompting the rise to a new political cycle of defiance of neoliberal hegemony and political elites.
The eruption of these protests led some analysts to predict that this malaise produced by the Chilean neoliberal model was leading to a fatal crisis of legitimacy that anticipated its collapse (Mayol, 2012), and that this was a structural crisis in which what was at stake were the principles on which the socio-economic and political systems were based upon (Garretón, 2016).
Gabriel Boric became a protagonist in Chilean politics in this turbulent context of structural crisis. In the 2013 parliamentary elections, and with the echoes of the 2011-2012 student movement still resonating, four former leaders of different student federations were elected to parliament: Camila Vallejo and Karol Cariola, from the Communist Party; and Gabriel Boric and Giorgio Jackson, both from left-wing student political organisations that, after various mutations, would become the core political parties of a new political coalition formed in early 2017, the Frente Amplio.
The presence of these new young MPs in parliament would cause a stir. Their interventions held strong stance against the political and economic elites, especially those of Gabriel Boric, which resonated with the general sense of rejection towards traditional parties that were perceived as a “political class” operating only in terms of their own interests. Proof of this was the progressive and systematic decline since the 1990s in voter turnout, in the number of party members and, more generally, in all indicators reflecting affinity for any party, coalition or ideological sector.
As the formal democratic regime consolidated, the democracy-authoritarianism conflict that had organised the party system into two coalitions (supporters vs. opponents of the dictatorship), was inexorably weakening. In its place, what could be described as an anti-establishment or anti-oligarchic cleavage, understood as a division or fracture between the citizenry and the various power elites (especially the political “class”) was gaining relevance. This cleavage not only implied the population’s withdrawal from the political process, but also the emergence of leaders and ‘protest political parties’ that challenged the traditional parties (Alvear Atlagich, 2021).
It is precisely according to this cleavage that the arrival of the former student leaders to parliament in 2013 should be understood. That same year, Michelle Bachelet won the presidential election for the second time with 62% of the votes supported by the same coalition of centre and centre-left parties that governed Chile between 1990 and 2010, but this time including the Communist Party ⎯a party that had remained critical of the economic model and therefore marginalised since 1990. Bachelet’s government programme included social demands such as free university education and the drafting of a new constitution free of the conservative and neoliberal ideological ballast of the dictatorship. Although her government’s success could have halted the divorce between politics and society, the reforms were modest and her government quickly foundered on corruption scandals, illegal financing of political campaigns and the conservative opposition within her own coalition, plunging the parties, mainly the Christian Democrats and the Socialist Party, into an even deeper crisis.
This was the context of the 2017 elections when Frente Amplio, a new left-wing political force, put an end to the “bipolar coalition system” by bursting into parliament with 20 MPs. At the same time, its presidential candidate Beatriz Sánchez, obtained a surprising 20% of the vote. The coalition was made up mainly of former university leaders who participated in the 2011 mobilisations, and whose discourse strongly criticised the “old politics” of the traditional parties. The “old politics” were characterised by unethical non-democratic practices, lack of transparency and their adherence to the neoliberal consensus, versus a “new politics” presented as democratic, representative of the desire for structural transformations, and led by young politicians who were not “contaminated” by the old elites. At the head of the two main parties in the coalition were MPs Giorgio Jackson and Gabriel Boric.
However, with a campaign focused on instigating fear of the demands of the social movement, the right-wing Sebastián Piñera got elected for a second term. At the same time, the Frente Amplio lost much of its initial momentum as it entered a dynamic centred on parliamentary discussions. Their rapid parliamentarisation led to some level of disappointment; in the eyes of part of their electorate, they looked like those members of the establishment they initially fiercely opposed.
The social revolt of October 2019 took place amidst a right-wing government reluctant to any reform and a party system disconnected from the citizenry. During five months (until the arrival of the covid-19 pandemic in March 2020) the country experienced the most violent social protests and the greatest violations of human rights since the dictatorship. The magnitude of the protests was not only related to their intensity, but also to the extent of the challenge to the social order that was set in motion, proportional to the degree of delegitimisation of the economic and political systems. The forefront demands denounced the neoliberal model most palpable effects: the concentration of wealth and income, low wages and pensions, high-strain work, over-indebtedness, and the ecological devastation caused by the extractivist model, among many other grievances. This was coupled with a challenge both to conservative, patriarchal institutions and to the political system that had underpinned the social order.
During the first weeks of protests, and despite the seemingly elusive heterogeneity of the grievances, the demand for a new political constitution began to make headway. The current constitution was now widely seen as the backbone of the delegitimised economic, political and cultural order, thus needed radical change. On the night of 15 November 2019, amidst one of the most violent weeks, at the proposal of President Piñera, the political parties seemed to reach an agreement on the drafting of a new Constitution through a constitutional convention. However, the agreement included a 2/3 voting rule which would presumably give the right a veto power in said convention. Both the Communist Party and Convergencia Social (Boric’s party) took the decision not to sign it. Having been a direct participant in the negotiations and understanding that the agreement was in danger without his signature, MP Boric personally signed the agreement in what would be one of the defining moments of his political career. That night, the political significance of his leadership was completely overturned. While for much of the more radical left and mobilised sectors he became a defender of the status quo, for more moderate sectors his figure was cloaked in an aura of pragmatism and institutional responsibility. The coming months would be the most difficult for the nascent coalition and for Gabriel Boric’s leadership. Several of the parties would withdraw from the coalition and his own party would experience a breakaway. For the most extreme on the Left, Boric would become a pariah, to the point of being attacked in public.
Only the plebiscite of October 2020 (in which the option in favour of drafting a new constitution obtained 78% of the votes) gave a relief to those who had signed up to the agreement. In these somewhat diminished conditions, in early 2021, the Frente Amplio signed an electoral pact with the Communist Party and other left-wing forces to ensure the largest possible representation in the future constitutional convention. The new pact was called Apruebo Dignidad.
In line with the radicalisation of the anti-establishment cleavage we have mentioned, in the May 2021 elections, a plethora of non-party candidates (many of them with a very radical discourse,) were elected to the constitutional convention. The Frente Amplio and the Communist Party also had an excellent performance. The right was reduced to only a quarter of the convention members, falling short of the one-third needed to exercise veto power.
With not very high expectations, the Frente Amplio nominated Gabriel Boric as its presidential candidate for the primaries of the Apruebo Dignidad pact, where he would face the popular Communist Party mayor, Daniel Jadue, the big favourite in the polls. In July 2021, and to the surprise of the entire political spectrum, Boric won with 60% of the vote. In a country exhausted by political turbulence, the aura of institutional responsibility and moderate rhetoric with hints of radicalism that Boric had forged, yielded its first fruits. From then on, his passage to the run-off was taken for granted.
In a new twist in the volatile Chilean politics of recent years, the far-right candidate José Antonio Kast won the first round of the elections due to a conservative backlash resulting from the weariness of certain sectors with the violence of social protest, the fear of uncertainty with the process of change, and a strategy of disinformation that sought to inspire fear about the “chaotic” consequences that the victory of the left would have for the economy. In such scenario, the people who voted for Boric in the second round added those moderate voters who, without fully subscribing to the change proposed by his programme, would turn out to defend democracy and against a reactionary, authoritarian candidacy internationally associated with the political movements of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Donald Trump in the United States.
This has so far been Gabriel Boric’s turbulent but fast-paced path to the presidency. His government, which began on 11 March 2022, will have to deal with very complex conditions: with a constituent process running in parallel, high inflation and economic slowdown, a migration crisis on the northern border, and a fragmented parliament in which the Right controls half of the Senate. In the face of such obstacles, the chances of realising the most ambitious government programme since 1990 are slim, and yet the chances of building a legitimate social, political and economic order to replace a completely fractured conservative and neoliberal order depend precisely on its ability to advance reforms and on the success of the constituent process.
Although the proposed anti-neoliberal reforms do not go beyond what in the Old World is understood as a social democratic orientation, in Chile this implies dismantling a complex structure forged over almost half a century ⎯since 1975 with the reforms of the military dictatorship. This is, years before Reagan or Thatcher even came to power. It is in this sense that Boric’s statement “If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its tomb” during his victory speech in the July 2021 primaries should be understood. Whether and how this will happen remains to be seen.
Special thanks to Alejandra Villanueva for her editing work and comments.
About the author
Fernando A. Alvear Atlagich is a sociologist based in Santiago, Chile, and a member of the leftist political party Convergencia Social. He holds an MSc in Political Sociology from the London School of Economics and is a PhD candidate in Social Sciences at the University of Chile. His current research is focused on the recent emergence of the Chilean political parties Revolución Democrática and Convergencia Social, both in government as part of the Apruebo Dignidad coalition.
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