“Neoliberalism was born in Chile and here it will die”

Sue Lukes examines how Gabriel Boric won the presidential election for the left and what happens now

“Another year to come, but this one’s different, a year we are together with dignity and equality. We woke up, we united, the penguins [schoolchildren in Chile are called penguins because of their uniforms] showed the way. Another year with dignity, we won’t forget. We’ve had 15, 20, 30 years of abuse and poverty while they looted and burned the earth, and stole… now there’s no peace without justice, Piñera will pay, every bullet will be returned.”

It’s only a lyric, to be sung to a popular New Year’s Eve song, but a perfect expression of Chile’s mood today: hope, pride and anger.  And just to remind us of how much and how fast things have changed, we need only see a tweet: a picture from almost exactly eight years ago. President Piñera visited the southern city of Punta Arenas, and was scolded by a student leader for the commercialisation of education, and told that presidents should listen.  In two months that former student will be installed as the new and youngest president of Chile, having won an election with 56% – the largest vote ever. 


Of course the roots of this go further back than 2016.  The Pinochet dictatorship ended in 1990, after 17 years of brutal repression, but left behind a constitution that entrenched massive inequality, neoliberal values, the armed forces with a guaranteed political and economic role and the private sector running crucial sectors: health, education, pensions and of course Chile’s vast natural resources.  Chile is now the third most unequal country in the world, even as it is often hailed as an economic success.

There followed twenty years of the Concertación presiding – the alliance of parties including the Socialists and Christian Democrats.  This was followed by the billionaire right winger Piñera from 2010 to 2014 and again from 2014 to 2018.

But throughout, Chile was rocked by a series of uprisings and social explosions. In 2006 school students rose up against tuition and living costs rising. In 2008 school and university students protested. In 2011–13 there was a student uprising during which Boric came to prominence as President of the Chilean students union.  These protests included a two-day general strike by the Chilean trade union federation, the CUT. The police responded with violent repression, which included fatal shootings.

In 2019 there was new uprising: Chile despertó – “woke up”. It was led by school students protesting against rises in metro fares, but as they said, “It’s not the 30 pesos (about 2p) it’s the 30 years.”  There was violent repression by carabineros, marked by the 460 or more who lost an eye or even two in what appeared to be intentional targeting, as well as the 30 people killed. 

Piñera declared a state of emergency, saying the country was at war.  The unrest spread across the whole country, linking with other longstanding discontents and conflicts: land occupation and savage repression in the south where Mapuche original peoples face off those who would occupy and despoil their lands, lakes and rivers; the privatised AFP pension system that leaves so many destitute; the cost of living; and widespread corruption in which many of Piñera’s government were implicated. 

On 25th October over 1.2 million people marched through Santiago – more than one in fifteen of the whole population of Chile.  A year later, once Piñera had sacked many of his ministers, and the main parties had agreed to it, 78% of Chileans voted to introduce a new constitution. 

But protests and repression have continued throughout.  Just one small example: in February 2021 a street performer was shot in the small town of Panguipulli in the south, the site of many of the stand-offs against hydroelectric companies and murders of Mapuche leaders. Riots ensued, and all the public buildings in the town were burned down.  In other parts of Chile, monuments to key figures like singers Victor Jara and Violeta Parra have been the focus of attacks by the far right.

In May 2021 the members of the convention to write the new constitution were elected, with 17 seats reserved by law for indigenous people, and strict gender parity.  Only 37 Piñera supporters were elected, out of 155 members.  65 seats went to independents, many of whom had been active in the protests. Tia Pikachu, who attended many in a pokemon costume, for example, stood on the Lista del Pueblo, whose programme proposes an “environmental, egalitarian and participatory state”.

Of the 53 people elected on left party slates, 40% were not actually members of parties.  They proceeded to elect a Mapuche woman professor to preside.  In the first week, 105 delegates passed a declaration demanding an amnesty and reparations for all protestors imprisoned and injured in the protests and an end to the imprisonment of Mapuche activists.   

Elections 2021

So by the time the elections were held in November 2021, things were fairly polarised.  The first round of the presidential election took place at the same time as the elections for many Senate places and the Chamber of Deputies.  And it didn’t go well: Kast, the far right candidate came top in the presidential poll, the right made gains in the Senate – now roughly evenly split between left and right, but with the interesting addition of two new communist senators and Fabiola Campillai, an independent, who had been blinded by carabineros in 2019.

In the Chamber of Deputies, the Concertación, the alliance between the Socialist Party and Christian Democrats which had governed Chile for the twenty post-dictatorship years, lost seats. The right kept theirs, but with Kast’s far right gaining within it.  Overall the picture in the Chamber is one of fragmentation, with seven independents, several parties with a handful of deputies, including a new ‘anti-politics’ party whose candidate came third in the presidential first round, and the left not nearly as united as the right, although nominally ahead of it.

So after the first round the Boric campaign, Apruebo Dignidad, had four weeks to turn things around.  And on 19th December he won with 55.6% of the vote, the highest number of votes in Chile yet, and will become Chile’s youngest president and the second youngest head of state in the world, beaten only by the Captain Regent of San Marino.  He is unmarried, tattooed and described by the Economist as “woke” and “part of the millennial left “. He describes himself as an agnostic and has been open about his mental health problems in the past.  His dog Brownie has 73,000 twitter followers.

How did this happen?  Kast was endorsed by the candidates who came third and fourth in the first round and had heavyweight support, from Bolsonaro, Vox in Spain, Piñera, Pepsico and UnitedHealth executives, and many senior figures in the Catholic church. His positions, beyond his overt support of Pinochet, were almost a compendium of far right memes: a ditch between Chile and Bolivia to stop illegal migration; opposition to action on climate change, to abortion and same sex marriage; defence of Chile’s ‘European heritage’ against indigenous movements; restricting social benefits to married women.  One prominent supporter questions women’s suffrage.  There were many reports of members of the Catholic hierarchy telling parishioners to vote for him.

Polls show that many of those who voted for other right wing candidates did not follow their endorsements: in Antofagasta in the north for example, Boric came third in the first round but resoundingly won in the second, clearly picking up votes from right wing candidates. 

He was urged, of course, to move towards the centre to gather those votes.  But although he said he wanted to reach out to all Chileans, and promised that increases in the minimum wage and reductions in the working week would be introduced gradually, not immediately, and that tax increases would be implemented responsibly, he made few concessions. 

In practice those would have been difficult: the 229 page programme of Apruebo Dignidad was the product of a huge participative process, involving tens of thousands of people in 602 sessions across the country. It defined the priorities: a new pensions system, more participation at all levels, health system reforms, education as a right, tackling climate change.   Thousands of proposals were distilled into 53 concrete proposals “for a new Chile”. 

The really significant element in the victory was the increase in turnout: 1.2 million more people voted in the second round, setting another record since 2012, when voting stopped being compulsory in Chile.  The Apruebo Dignidad campaign tapped into both the enthusiasm for social change, evidenced by the vote for the constitutional convention, and the real fear of what a Kast victory might bring, and mobilised most of those votes.

With the other candidates gone, the left threw itself whole heartedly behind the campaign, but the campaign involved much more than the now less significant parties.  First round support was focused particularly in the central region, but support for Boric in the second extended along the whole of the country.  In Antofagasta in the north, for example, where Kast’s anti-migrant rhetoric was sometimes effective, Boric finished third in the first round but beat Kast by 20 points in the second. 

The level of mobilisation was huge.  40,000 people were recruited as monitors, supporters pledged to “knock on every door”.  Others organised differently: k-poppers, maybe emboldened by their anti-Trump successes, ran a massive social media campaign, aided by Boric’s cultural competence and willingness to be pictured with obscure photocards.  There were relational campaigns of this type in every community, physical and virtual.  Of course there was support from the veterans of cultural resistance like Illapu, the Chilean refugee star of Game of Thrones (who knew?), the voices of the new movements like Ana Tijou and Mon Laferte, but Boric also reminded us that La Sonora de Tommy Rey, the soundtrack of so many of his parents’ parties, was also on side. 

It is also clear that some attempts were made at voter suppression, once the scale of participation became obvious.  In particular, with elections held on a Sunday, and polling stations often far from working class and rural areas, bus services were sparse and allegations made that companies or even the government was deliberately making travel difficult. 

A mobilised campaign made this tactic ineffective.  Tia Pikachu sprang into action in her neighbourhood, getting the school bus drivers out to transport people.  In Renca, a poor sprawling settlement on the edge of Santiago, a furniture maker saw the queues for buses and organised his family to drive their vans back and forth to get the vote out. 

The victory hinged on the appeal to all those desperate for change, and on their belief that Boric was both completely committed to that change and not in hock to either the old and rather discredited parties or to those who benefit from the current system.  His tone, his continuing commitment to listening, his determined repeating of “Neoliberalism was born in Chile and here it will die” have reminded people of the other popular wins people remember and value: the victory of the No in the 1988 referendum, the push for a new constitution, the election of the constitutional convention, and many municipal elections which the left has won and then used to make real changes to people’s lives such as the Farmacias Populares offering cheap and accessible medicines. 


“Careful, Sue: it’s amazing, but he’s no Allende,” said a Chilean friend when we spoke the day after the election.  She had hailed Boric’s election as the first independent Congressman in 2013, and “the only honest politician we have”, and she remembers Allende too.  “Boric,” she said, “is a social democrat.”  And that, of course, poses the question of how he will manage given the challenges he faces.  He has no party base to support him, or to compromise him, and he has come to embody a huge range of expectations and hopes. 

He has shown a lot of political skill so far, as pointed out by Podemos’s Pablo Iglesias.  His first words to the ecstatic crowd of thousands who came to celebrate the win in Santiago’s grandes alamedas , were in the indigenous language Mapudungun, a signal about the extent of change to come.  He chooses people with skill: he pulled in Izkia Siches, the President of the College of Chilean doctors, enjoying great popularity as a result of her leadership during the pandemic, as his campaign chief.  An interview with one of his main economic advisers illustrates the careful thinking and likely directions on economic policy:

“Boric and his supporters are very committed to the ecological transition. Chile is lucky because it has lithium, which is essential for batteries, and copper, which is essential for the energy transition. In addition, there is great potential for further development of solar and wind energy. It is necessary to give priority to certain sectors for that transition, supporting their development… Development banks must be mobilized for the green transition. And financial regulation can be used to incentivize commercial bank loans to companies with low-carbon investments… Public investment is key. For example, Boric wants to invest heavily in building an extensive rail network. Then there is hydrogen. Hydrogen can be produced sustainably in Chile because there are many ways to generate renewable energy. We can use green hydrogen in mining to have green copper.”

But for those of us who remember Allende, of course a core question is: who will try to stop him, and how can he resist that?  The programme on which he was elected promises to set up new democratic controls on the army and change the institutional culture.  The brief for the new constitution is to reduce the power of the rich and the big companies and to create a fairer more equal state. All will be needed if Chile is to get the change it so desperately needs. 

As over 120 mayors from all parts of Chile, declared: “It is a crucial moment in Chile.  We face a crisis of institutionality, a pandemic and decades of inequality, which has hit millions of Chileans hard… Chile needs Dignity.” 

And here is a key to how the Boric project can develop and succeed: his commitment to massive decentralisation, strengthening municipal structures and skills, a 1,000% increase (!) in central funding to local councils, and support for the creation of local municipal companies to provide goods and services like electricity, water and internet that are basic social rights. 

By encouraging participation and agency at this local level, it may just be possible to secure the level of support and continuing mobilisation to enable us all to dance on the grave of neoliberalism, as Boric promises. 

Sue Lukes was Chair of the Chile Committee for Justice, which campaigned for the dictator Pinochet to be brought to justice, and is now an Islington Labour Councillor for Highbury East Ward.

Image: Creator: Paulo Slachevsky Copyright: Paulo Slachevsky (CC BY-NC-SA )

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