How Chile Beat the Far-Right

Gabriel Boric's landmark victory in this month's Chilean election was built on the foundations of the 2019 protest movement – but also showed a Left capable of building alliances beyond its traditional strongholds.

Gabriel Boric stood as a candidate for the Apruebo Dignidad coalition. (Credit: Getty Images)

On 19 December, Gabriel Boric became the youngest President-elect of Chile. But the 35-year-old former student leader and Member of Parliament for Frente Amplio made history for more than his young age and radical ideas. Boric also won the election with the biggest turnout in Chilean history and the largest margin of victory ever in a Presidential election: he finished 11 points (55%) ahead of his far-right rival, Jose Antonio Kast (44%).

This history is not about the efforts of one man or even one organisation. Despite numerous commentators and journalists talking primarily about Boric’s background, personality, and ideas, this is not the message that he—or the coalition which brought him to victory—want us to focus on and learn from.

In Boric’s final campaign video, he used the slogan ‘Entramos todos a la Moneda‘ (‘we all enter La Moneda,’ Chile’s government building). This is not purely rhetorical. Instead, it signifies the long wait of the Chilean people to play an active part in their own history once again, and the struggle for the Left as a broad political project to enter the spaces of power and decision-making.

The victory in the presidential election, which has captivated the Left across the world, should be recognised as a pivotal moment for a social movement and political project. In the immediate, there were the four weeks of campaigning between the first and second round of the presidential election, which brought huge numbers into action in the battle for a better future. But long before this, there has been a movement for change developing since the return of democracy in Chile, one which exploded into life again in 2019’s protest movement. Both of these intersect in Boric’s victory.

Winning over the Centre

It might be easy to forget amid the euphoria today, but Boric actually came second in the first round of the presidential election, with only 1,814,809 votes. For many Chilean left-wingers, this was a shock to the system. The result demonstrated that Boric did not win significantly more votes than he did in the left-wing primaries which had been held in April 2021 against the Communist mayor, Daniel Jadue, when Boric obtained 1,058,027 votes.

Many felt that this result left Boric with little chance of winning the second round. At the very least, it signalled the need for an immense effort to gain votes from an even broader political coalition. It seemed, at that point, that he was only convincing the already convinced. Furthermore, pessimism could be found in the fact that only in one previous election since the return to democracy had the second-place candidate in the first round won. Against these odds, many were convinced that the far-right was on course for victory.

In the dominant media narrative, Boric turned the tide with a conciliatory tone. This, it is argued, helped him to reconcile his programme with centrist forces and build a coalition to defeat Kast in the second round. However, there is more to the picture than this. In reality, a largely discredited political centre, which had been thoroughly defeated in the first round of the elections, was forced to support Boric’s campaign out of a fear for its own future produced by the 2019 uprising. Rather than moderating Boric or his programme, this process vindicated many of the processes which had produced his candidacy.

The support of the centre-left Socialist Party, which has been in government several times since the return to democracy, came quickly after the first round results. The party opted for Christian Democrat candidate, Yasna Provoste, in the first round, losing some support from their rank and file, which decided to support Boric. Political pressure from centre-left sections of the centrist coalition Nuevo Pacto Social was reaching boiling point. The fear of having a President that openly endorsed Augusto Pinochet was a terrible scenario for what had once been Salvador Allende’s party. As a result, the leaders of the party offered their unconditional support to Boric.

The centrist Nuevo Pacto Social—which has been a dominant political coalition in Chile since the return of democracy under its former name ‘Concertacion’—came fifth in the first round and has been losing popular support for years. Its candidate, the Christian Democrat and former Senate leader Yasna Provoste, endorsed Boric only after a long delay, and did so with criticisms of his programme. She made clear that she would remain in opposition even under his government. But for the more centre-left parts of the coalition, the threat of the far-right proved too much to add caveats to their support for Boric and his Apruebo Dignidad coalition.

Nuevo Pacto Social was particularly damaged by the 2019 social uprising. Their inability to work with social movements and community organisations cast them as out-of-touch, traditional parties. Their involvement in several instances of corruption, which particularly impacted the last centre-left government under Michele Bachelet, broke the public trust that they had once earned and held through the transition to democracy. Against this backdrop, Nuevo Pacto Social had no option but to support Boric; not doing so would have been the final nail in the coffin.

The Challenge of Populism

If centrist parties had been discredited by the 2019 uprising and the subsequent struggle for a new constitution, new forces were also created by that process. A more complicated situation for Boric was his campaign’s relationship with Franco Parisi and his voters.

Parisi is an independent populist candidate, who can be difficult to define on a traditional political spectrum. He obtained 12.8% of the votes in the first round and did remarkably well in all northern regions, which was a real concern for Apruebo Dignidad. But he was also, as is so often the case with amorphous populists, a businessman with shady dealings—and an ongoing criminal investigation into his real estate dealings.

Negotiating with an allegedly corrupt businessman was clearly contrary to Boric’s political positions and commitments to a more transparent democracy. However, convincing Parisi’s voters was vital to winning the election. This objective was dealt a blow when it became evident that Parisi was leaning towards endorsing Kast in the second round (which he did the day before the election). But this is when the campaign took an interesting turn.

Boric brought in Lucia Dammert and Eduardo Vergara, public intellectuals and progressive voices on the issues of security, social order and inequality. This decision allowed Boric to respond to some of the main concerns expressed by Parisi’s voters. And, more importantly, it permitted him to develop upon a programme which had initially lacked a serious progressive response to issues of drug trafficking and insecurity, which have been overlooked by left-wing parties in the past.

Another significant turn in the campaign came with the integration of Izkia Siches as campaign manager. Siches is a medical doctor and former President of the Chilean Medical College, a professional association of Chilean doctors. She met Boric during the student movement in 2011 when she was President of the student union of the School of Medicine in the Universidad de Chile while Boric was one of the national leaders.

Siches, in her role as President of the Chilean Medical College, was incredibly influential during the pandemic. She was consistent and tireless in her efforts to keep the government’s responses to the health crisis accountable, securing significant approval among the population. Her inclusion was vital for increasing Boric’s support in the short four weeks leading to the second round, especially in northern regions where she originates.

Although these northern regions do not have a large population in comparison to the metropolitan regions, it has historically voted left and centre-left. These are the mining regions where unions emerged, and the first workers’ rebellions occurred in Chile. Seeing them fall to the far-right Kast and the populist Parisi in the first round was a serious challenge that had to be addressed. In these campaign innovations, Boric managed a great deal of progress in only a short few weeks.

Rebuilding the Left

But beyond the challenges posed by centrist and populist candidates, the first round had also exposed the weakness of the Left in traditional working-class areas. As is the case in many Western countries, these regions which had once supported the Left and centre-left, were leaning towards right-wing and populist alternatives in recent times.

This made the influence of the Confederation of Copper Workers (CTC) particularly decisive. They wrote a statement in the days after the first vote ‘appealing to the consciousness and wisdom of working-class people’ to ‘avoid falling into the hands of a fascist government.’ CTC had not expressed a preference in the first round, but their decision to back Boric against the far-right Kast was crucial. CTC represents most of CODELCO workers, the state-owned copper mining company. Many of these workers, particularly miners, work and live in the north of Chile where mining is a vital industry to hundreds of communities.

The swing of mining communities towards the Left in the second round was dramatic. In the region of Antofagasta, for example, where 57% of the productive economy is mining, Boric obtained 41,490 votes in the first round (20.61%), finishing third behind Kast (20.99%) and Parisi (33.93%). In the second round, Boric increased his vote to 127,850 (59.78%). This suggests something relevant about the political capital that workers continue to have in northern regions and the ability that their trade unions have to mobilise voters, even where, at first glance, it seems workers were following the apolitical populism of Parisi.

There was a similar effect when it came to the feminist movement, which feminists have dubbed ‘la potencia feminista,’ or ‘feminist power.’ A few days after the first round, feminist organisations, such as Coordinadora 8 de Marzo, called a popular assembly of women and LGBTQ+ people (disidencias), and over 1,700 joined in-person and online. Even though some sectors of the feminist movement are autonomist and do not work with political parties, the popular assembly decided to support and campaign for Boric.

Feminist interventions in working-class communes in Santiago and their presence on social media became increasingly important during the weeks leading to the second round. This consolidated when a video emerged of one of Kast’s supporters and an elected MP for the Republican Party arguing that women should not have the right to vote. The impact of the feminist movement can be measured in the vote share of the second round. In the first round, 53% of women under 30 years old and 58% of women between 30-50 years old participated in the election. These numbers increased to 63% and 67%, respectively, in the second round. According to Decide Chile, 68% of women under 30 supported Boric, making that demographic one of the social groups that had the biggest impact in the second round.

Environmental organisations were also essential in Boric’s victory. Since the return to democracy, Chile has seen several environmental crises linked to water theft by landlords, companies and politicians associated with these elite interests. This conflict was made more visible during the 2019 social uprising, becoming one of the central demands of the movement. It is currently one of the issues being considered within the Constitutional Convention.

One of the key organisations in this struggle is MODATIMA, a grassroots organisation for the defence of water in the region of Valparaiso. Ten years after its foundation, their leader, Rodrigo Mundaca, was elected Governor in May 2021. Mundaca ran a campaign detached from political parties but with strong left-wing narratives and ideas. He obtained the largest vote share in the country and became an important figure nationally.

Mundaca not only highlighted the crisis of water but also set a precedent that left-wing candidates from outside the traditional party system could win in major elections. Mundaca’s support for Boric’s campaign communicated to the public that the left-wing candidate was the only one prepared to tackle the historic conflict for water, as well as offering additional support from outside Chile’s jaded and traditional political system.

‘Hope defeated fear’ is a line that has often been repeated since Boric’s victory. Indeed, hope was the most used word in his victory speech on Sunday. The hope of ending neoliberalism is present and alive. Some of the power that could put an end to this economic project of extractivism, exploitation, violence and inequality are in the hands of the President-elect and the Constitutional Convention. The hope of a society that recovers its natural resources, promotes feminist principles, reduces working hours, and increases wages, is real.

The road to fulfil those hopes will be difficult. Boric’s responsibility now is to work alongside those in the broad social movements that contributed so significantly to his election. He needs to show that the efforts made were not in vain, while also dealing with a divided and polarised political system. Today, we hope that Chile—the birthplace of neoliberalism—will also be its grave.