“If Chile was the birthplace of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave!”

By Ivette Hernandez Santibañez

These were the triumphant words with which the elected presidential candidate Gabriel Boric, a former student leader from the 2011 Chilean student movement, addressed militants and adherents from the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) last Sunday 18th July 2021, after winning more than 60% of the vote to become the presidential candidate of the electoral coalition Apruebo Dignidad ( I Support Dignity).

What does this decisive victory for Boric mean and what does it entail for the progressive forces and for the unity of the left?

Boric’s victory could be seen in tandem with the emergence of a generation of student leaders who were catapulted into the spotlight during the 2011 Chilean student protests that demanded a radical reform of the Chilean neoliberal market-driven education system. In 2013, the election of four former student leaders as MPs gained international attention as it was interpreted as providing hope to dismantle the system from within.

Certainly, their election opened the political opportunity for radical changes in politics and encompassed the legacy of the Chilean student movement. Yet that momentum only partially explains the decisive victory Boric won a week ago. Here the solid work of the FA becomes key to understanding the outstanding victory of Boric that led him into the presidential race.

The FA, a broad political alliance of civil society actors, former student activists, grassroots movements, progressive forces, grassroots organisations and independents, was created in Chile in 2017. Gabriel Boric, along with Giorgio Jackson, a former student leader from the 2011 student protests and currently an MP, became the two key politicians to set up the creation of the FA.

Not only did the FA manage to rapidly develop as the third political force, by wining 21 parliamentary seats in the 2017 presidential elections, but it has gradually consolidated as a decentralized grassroots party-movement, engaging with grassroots participatory democracy and decentralized local activist networks.

A solid proof of the FA’s political work has been the winning of key boroughs across the country in the mayoral elections last May 2021. This political work involves new forms of building and doing local politics that emerge from local activism and through a mobilised civil society. This local politics has become central to the FA in articulating struggles for the commons and in nurturing its sustained development.

In January 2021, the FA agreed with Chile Digno, a political coalition of left-wing political parties including the Chilean Communist Party (ChCP), to create Apruebo Dignidad, as an electoral coalition of leftist and independent candidates who ran as delegates for the Constituent Assembly that will write  a new constitution for Chile.  

Following the election of 27 delegates from Apruebo Dignidad in May 2021, political parties from this coalition, such as Social Convergence (CS),Democratic Revolution (RD), the ChCP, Equality Party and Libertarian Left, confirmed a presidential primary between Daniel Jadue, a Communist mayor, supported by Chile Digno, and Gabriel Boric, current MP and militant from CS, as the candidate of FA.

It has not been all plain sailing for Gabriel Boric to be chosen as the candidate of this presidential primary. He faced fierce criticisms from the left, including the ChCP, and by militants and adherents from the FA for his political decision to sign, along with traditional political parties, a cross-party peace accord in November 2019. Nevertheless, it was ultimately this accord that ended up paving the way for the creation of a fully elected constitutional assembly with gender parity and set quotas for Indigenous people’s delegates to replace Pinochet’s constitution.

Last Sunday, the presidential candidacy of Apruebo Dignidad obtained 56.58% of electoral support while the right-wing alliance achieved 43.34%. Overall, this represents a very good result for the progressive political forces to continue shattering the right-wing conservative political class. Yet it also opens up key questions concerning the extent to which the left could co-exist in a sustained way, while advancing progressive agendas and pursuing the mobilisation of electoral politics.

One first test came with the presidential primary last Sunday. In this context the decisive victory of Gabriel Boric has the possibility to open up the conversation about what a 21st-century political project of the left could look like.

The focus of Boric’s presidential campaign was on creating bigger political and grassroots alliances to pursue the building of a transformative project. The latter raised suspicions from some partisan leftist groups which saw becoming engulfed by centre-left political parties as a risk. Yet Boric’s campaign was primarily focused on the possibility of continuing to build a new common sense in Chile, and through majorities that are not always determined by the static division between the right and the left.

Gabriel Boric’s successful presidential preliminary campaign was built on the idea of becoming an alternative that does not represent new blood for old defeats. By doing so,his campaign was not based on filling the vacuum, but rather continuing to build, with one foot in electoral politics, the common ground around those struggles that have shaken the foundations of the first laboratory of neoliberalism to make Chile the country where it will also die.   

Ivette Hernandez Santibañez is a Lecturer at the Department of International Development,  School of Global Affairs, King’s College London.

Main image: Protests in Santiago, Chile, 2019. Author: Carlos Figueroa, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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