Chilean elections: the ugly face of authoritarian regression

By Nicolás Ortiz Ruiz

Last Sunday Chile went to the polls to elect a new President and part of both chambers of Parliament. Although it was expected to be a close race, the results where catastrophic as José Antonio Kast, a far-right candidate won the first round majority with 27.9% of the vote followed by Gabriel Boric, a progressive former student leader who rose to presidential candidate through a coalition of left-wing parties and movements named Apruebo Dignidad (Approve Dignity) with 25.8%. These results mean that the country will go to a second round election between both candidates which will decide the future president of the country for the next four years.

In the last 15 years, Chile has experienced a wave of protests over a wide variety of issues, including education, pensions, feminism, indigenous rights and the environment. In 2019 this wave peaked in the largest demonstrations that the country has seen, with millions of people mobilized. Although the demands were different and complex, there was a consensus that the country demanded a path towards a more inclusive and fairer society, leaving behind 40 years of neoliberal policies.

To end the revolt, the political class negotiated a referendum to decide whether to maintain the 1980 Constitution – written during Pinochet’s dictatorship – or to write a new one. Although this decision reduced the strength of the demonstrations, it was the pandemic that finally ended them. As everywhere else in the world, Covid-19 had a seismic effect in the country. The weak reaction of the government to the crisis meant that a great number of people were forced to lockdown without any source of income except for small subsidies.

In this context the public discussion shifted towards a law that allowed people to use part of their pension funds as a relief for the consequences of lockdowns. As the pandemic waned, the mood of the population has shifted from social struggle to a desire for stability. In this sense, the pandemic and its consequences changed the priorities, displacing the struggles that fuelled the social revolt to a minor role.

Nevertheless in 2020, a referendum decided by a large majority (79%) in favour of a new constitution through a convention, and the following year a new election selected a majority of independent and left-wing representatives as members of the convention. The composition of the convention secured the representation of indigenous people and gender parity between its members. Although both elections were perceived as the continuation of the spirit of the revolt, they also hid a glaring problem: a lack of interest in the elections. For the referendum the turnout was only 50.9% while for the convention a mere 43.4%. For this last election, the turnout was of only 47.3%.

As it is the case in most of western democracies, Chile has suffered from a steep decline in voting. People do not seem to be interested in elections, leaving an increasingly smaller group to elect public representatives. Generally, this is due to a lack of interest and mistrust towards the electoral process and its representatives.

Although new parties have been created in the last decade, they have only been able to engage a small margin of people. For instance, Frente Amplio (Broad Front) – Boric’s coalition – built their platform in support of the demands of different organizations that have been demonstrating over this past 15 years. However, they have failed to distinguish themselves from the traditional political class. This is due to a number of reasons, but among the most important is their class background. As a movement forged during the student demonstrations, they come from a middle class background which permeates not only their messages but the general aesthetic of their campaign. This has been useful in terms of gathering the support of urban, young, middle-class and well-educated voters, but it has not been able to attract a wider audience.

With traditional parties’ credibility in tatters, right-wing populists have embraced an anti-establishment rhetoric to attract voters. This is certainly the case for Kast, but also for Franco Parisi, an anti-establishment candidate who came third with 12.8% of the votes. This was an extraordinary accomplishment considering that he ran his entire campaign from the USA, even falling to cast his own vote due to a pending court order regarding alimony for his children.

Kast, on the other hand, effectively summoned the conservative vote in the country. He ran on a platform that defended Pinochet’s regime, going to the extreme of vouching for former soldiers incarcerated for human rights violations. Another source of support comes from the regions outside the main capital of Santiago. As an extremely concentrated country, the reality and struggles for people in smaller cities and towns are usually not considered. In this context, the conservative discourse of Kast has grown substantially. His tough stance on issues such as migration, crime, drugs, coupled with a focus on family and traditional values have resonated with voters, especially those over 50 years old.

Kast is a real threat not only to the gains achieved under the last 15 years of mobilization, but to the lives of millions of people. Besides his open support for dictatorship, he ran on a platform with initiatives such as a complete ban on abortion, an increase in the age of retirement, the construction of a database of “left-wing radicals” to be persecuted by the police, and the dismantling of any climate change initiatives, among others.

The current scenario suggests an uphill battle for Boric, as he is forced to gain ground to the centre-left by focusing on issues that he is not comfortable with, such as security and drugs. The best chance that Boric has is to engage people from the centre-left and young people that did not vote in the last election.

The last election result became a major shock to the progressive forces in the country, helping to galvanize Boric’s campaign and congregating a great number of people to canvass for his campaign. Only time will tell if the authoritarian regression leads to a new right-wing populist in Latin America, or if Boric and his campaign is able to stop it.

Nicolás Ortiz Ruiz is a sociologist from Universidad Alberto Hurtado. He holds an MA in Longitudinal Social Research and a PhD in sociology from the University of Essex. Currently he holds a government funded postdoctoral position at the Centro de Investigación en Ciencias Sociales y Juventud (CISJU) of Universidad Católica Cardenal Silva-Henríquez.

Image: The Left Is Still Favored to Win Chile’s Presidency — But the Far Right Is Gaining Steam. Creator: jose pereira Source: https://progressive.international/wire/2021-11-13-the-left-is-still-favored-to-win-chiles-presidency–but-the-far-right-is-gaining-steam/en, licensed for reuse.

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