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How Chile’s Left Won

Gabriel Boric’s victory in Chile is a vindication of the mass movement which took to the streets in 2019 – and points towards a country ready to bury Pinochet’s legacy for good.

Gabriel Boric reacts before giving a speech to his supporters after the presidential runoff election on 19 December 2021 in Santiago, Chile. (Marcelo Hernandez / Getty Images)

A few weeks ago, when neofascist candidate José Antonio Kast was winning the first round of the country’s presidential elections, Chile’s 2019 rebellion aimed at burying neoliberalism appeared to be at an end. But it’s been reinvigorated with the landslide victory of the Apruebo Dignidad (‘I Vote For Dignity’) candidate Gabriel Boric Font, who obtained 56 percent of the vote in the second round—nearly five million votes, and the largest majority in the country’s history. At 35, Gabriel is the youngest president ever.

That result would have been greater had it not been for the policy of transport minister Gloria Hutt Hesse, who deliberately offered almost no public transport services, especially buses to the poor barrios, in the hope of forcing Boric voters to give up and go back home. On Election Day, there were constant reports in the mainstream media featuring people throughout the country, and particularly in Santiago, complaining about having to wait for two or even three hours for buses to polling centres. There were therefore justified fears that the election would be rigged—but the determination of poor voters was such that the move failed.

Kast’s campaign, with the complicity of the Right and the mainstream media, was one of the dirtiest in the country’s history, reminiscent of the US-funded and US-led ‘terror propaganda’ mounted against socialist candidate Salvador Allende in 1958, 1964, and 1970. Through innuendo and the use of social media, the Kast camp spewed out crass anti-communist propaganda, charged Boric with assisting terrorism, and suggested that he would install a totalitarian regime in Chile. The campaign sought to instil fear primarily in the petty bourgeoisie by repeatedly predicting that drug addiction, crime, and narco-trafficking would spin out control if Boric became president, and even implying that Boric himself takes drugs. The mainstream media also assailed Boric with insidious questions about Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba, to which he did not produce the most impressive answers.

But the mass of the population saw it through, sure in the knowledge that their vote was the only way to stop Pinochetismo taking hold of the presidency. They had had enough of president Piñera. They also knew that, in the circumstances, the best way to secure the aims of the social rebellion of October 2019 was to defeat Kast and his brand of unalloyed Pinochetismo.

As the electoral campaign unfolded, Kast backtracked on some of his most virulent Pinochetista statements—but people knew that if he won, he wouldn’t hesitate to fully implement them. Among other gems, Kast declared his intention as president to abolish the ministry for women, same-sex marriage, and abortion (the laws on which are already very restrictive); eliminate funding for the Museum in the Memory of the victims of the dictatorship and the Gabriela Mistral Centre for the promotion of arts, literature, and theatre; withdraw Chile from the International Commission of Human Rights and close down the National Institute of Human Rights; cease the activities of FLACSO (the prestigious Latin American centre of sociological investigation); build a ditch in the North of Chile, at the border with Bolivia and Peru, to stop illegal immigration; and empower the president with the legal authority to detain people in places other than police stations or jails—that is, restore the illegal procedures of Pinochet’s sinister police.

Kast’s intentions left no doubt as to what the right choice was in the election. I was, however, flabbergasted by various leftist analyses advocating against voting, in one case because ‘there [was] no essential difference between Kast and Boric’. Worse, another suggested that ‘the dilemma between fascism and democracy was false’ because Chile’s democracy is defective. My despair with such ‘principled posturing’, probably dictated by the best of political intentions, turned into shock when on election day itself a Telesur correspondent in Santiago interviewed a Chilean activist who only attacked Boric, the main message of the feature being that ‘whoever wins, Chile loses’.

The centre-left Concertación coalition, which in the 1990-2021 period governed the nation for twenty-four years and bears a heavy responsibility for maintaining and even perfecting the neoliberal system, openly expressed its preference for Boric, assiduously courting support for him in the second round. Those who believe there is no difference between Kast and Boric do so not only from an ultra-left stance, but also through finding Boric guilty by association, even though he has not yet had the chance to commit a crime.

This brings us to a central political issue: what does the legacy of the October 2019 rebellion and all its positive consequences mean for the Chilean working class? What is now posed in Chile is the struggle not for power, but for the masses who for decades were conned into accepting—however grudgingly—neoliberalism as a fact of life. The 2019 rebellion that was the first mass mobilisation that sought not only to oppose, but also to get rid of neoliberalism. That rebellion extracted extraordinary concessions from the ruling class, including a referendum for a Constitutional Convention entrusted legally with the task of drafting an anti-neoliberal constitution to replace the 1980 one promulgated under Pinochet’s rule.

The referendum approved the proposal of a new constitution and the election of a Convention by 78 and 79 percent respectively in October 2020. The election of the Convention gave Chile’s Right only 37 seats out of 155—barely 23 percent—whereas those in favour of radical change got an aggregated total of 118 seats, or 77 percent. More noticeably, Socialists and Christian Democrats, the old Concertación parties, got a joint total of 17 seats.

The biggest problem remains the fragmentation of the emerging forces aiming for change. Together they hold almost all the remaining seats, but they are structured in at least 50 different groups. Nevertheless, in tune with the political context, the Convention elected Elisa Loncón Antileo, a Mapuche indigenous leader, as its president, and there were 17 seats reserved exclusively for the indigenous nations and elected only by them—a development of huge significance.

The 2019 rebellion also obtained other concessions from the government and parliament, including the return of 70 percent of pension contributions from the private ‘pension administrators’, which Chileans rightly see as a massive swindle that has lasted for more than three decades. This has dealt a heavy blow to Chile’s financial capital. A proposal in parliament for the return of the remaining 30 percent at the end of September 2021 failed to be approved by a very small margin of votes, but I am certain the AFPs have not heard the last on the matter.

The scenario depicted above suddenly became confused with the results of the presidential election’s first round, which not only saw Kast come out first (with 27 percent against 25 for Boric), but which also elected Deputies and Senators for Chile’s two parliamentary chambers. Though Apruebo Dignidad did very well with 37 deputies (out of 155) and five senators (out of 50), the right-wing Chile Podemos Más (Piñera’s supporters) got 53 deputies and 22 senators, and the old Concertación got 37 deputies and 17 senators.

There are several dynamics at work here. With regard to the parliamentary election, traditional mechanisms and existing client relationships apply, with experienced politicians exerting local influence and getting elected. In contrast, most of the elected members of the Convention are an emerging bunch of motley pressure groups organised around single-issue campaigns (AFP, the privatisation of water, the price of gas, the abuse of utilities companies, the defence of Mapuche ancestral lands, state corruption, and so forth), and did not stand candidates for a parliamentary seat.

On 19 December, Boric publicly committed to supporting and working together with the Constitutional Convention for a new constitution in his victory speech. This has given and will give enormous impetus to the efforts to constitutionally replace the existing neoliberal economic model.

What the Chilean working class must now address is their lack of political leadership. They lack a Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP) like the one organised by the people of Honduras to fight against the coup that ousted Mel Zelaya in 2009. The FNPR, made up of many and varied social and political movements, evolved into the Libre party that has just succeeded in electing Xiomara Castro, the country’s first female president. The obvious possible avenue to address this potentially dangerous shortcoming would be to bring together in a national conference all the many single-issue groups alongside all social movements and willing political currents to set up a Popular Front for an Anti-Neoliberal Constitution.

After all, they have taken to the streets for two years to bury the oppressive, abusive, and exploitative neoliberal model, and it’s becoming clearer what they should replace it with: a system based on a new constitution that allows the nationalisation of all utilities and natural resources, punishes the corrupt, respects the ancestral lands of the Mapuche, and guarantees decent health, education, and pensions. The road there will be bumpy, but we have won the masses; now, with a sympathetic government in place, we can launch the transformation of the state, and build a better Chile.