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Gabriel Boric’s Cabinet Is a First Step in Chile’s Break with Neoliberalism

Gabriel Boric's Cabinet is Chile's most left-wing in decades, but remains a compromise with the moderate forces which dominate Parliament – a sign that the fight against neoliberalism is only beginning.

Gabriel Boric's victory against a far-right challenger in the second round of Chile's presidential election was powered by the country's significant social movements. (Credit: Getty Images)

Chile’s President-elect, Gabriel Boric, appointed his new Cabinet on 21 January. One of the prominent images which circulated around social media was of Maya Fernández—granddaughter of Salvador Allende and the new Minister of National Defence—as a baby with the late socialist President. The photo demonstrated the nostalgia and the significant connection between the Chile that Allende imagined and the one that, today, is in the making.

There is indeed some grand sense of historical justice to see Fernandez in charge of the military, the same institution that overthrew her grandfather’s government in 1973. The appointment of the new Cabinet, however, spoke to more than historical symbolism. It also sent a message highlighting the importance of this new government; a message that spoke of diversity and inclusion, but also of the difficult political terrain that this new government will need to navigate in the next four years.

The new Cabinet is formed of fourteen women and ten men, with seven of them under forty years old. The profile of ministers is not only diverse by gender, but also sexuality, education, and social background. A few milestones are relevant to highlight. Two new minsters will be the first openly LGBTQ+ members of the Cabinet in Chilean history; for the first time a woman will be Minister of Interior, arguably the most important brief; and the minister for women and gender equality will be upgraded to join the President in the high-level political committee of the Cabinet.

These are clear signs that political activism, such as the feminist and LGBTQ+ movements, have made an impact on the shaping of national politics and, thus, the shaping of this new government. Some have called this the ‘new Chile’, one that has removed barriers of representation emblematic of the old order by way of social transformations which have rapidly gained pace since the social uprising. While there have been critics of the lack of indigenous representation, it is clear that a wave of transformation in Chilean politics has brought with it communities and sectors of society that have been historically marginalised from traditional politics.

The distribution of political parties, on the other hand, also reveals the changes in the distribution of power in the country. Three members of the Communist Party (PC) and eight from the Frente Amplio coalition (FA) represent the left wing of the cabinet. The traditional wing of the cabinet is formed by two members of the Socialist Party (PS), with two extra independent-sympathisers: one from the Radical Party (PR), and one from Partido por la Democracia (PPD). The rest is comprised of one member of the Federacion Regionalista Verde Social (FRVS), a regionalist green party, and five independents. Unsurprisingly, the Left predominantly represents the Cabinet, with a strong presence from student leaders Camila Vallejo and Giorgio Jackson, who in their ministerial roles will be part of the President’s political committee.

As also expected, the Christian Democratic (DC) party, the predominant and most influential party during the 1990s, was left out the list of new ministers, and it was later confirmed that they will not be included in any of the governmental positions still to be appointed. This redistribution of power has two main implications that leave us with open questions rather than any certainty as to the future of Chilean politics. One such question is over the potential consolidation of a new political coalition in Chile. Another is the limitations that exist in the deepening left-wing politics of Boric’s government.

Although Boric won with 55% of the vote, a significant win for Chilean democracy, Parliament was split almost down the middle. None of the main coalitions that existed during the election managed to gain a majority of deputies and senators, leaving the new government with the difficult task of negotiating with a split Parliament for the approval of any legislation. Political parties, in particular those closer to the coalition Apruebo Dignidad, would have had greater political weight if they had returned more significant parliamentary support.

In this scenario, Boric’s new cabinet represents part of the necessity of balance and compromise that comes with a split Parliament. Including traditional parties from what was once Concertación, a centre-left grouping, is both strategic and realistic. In a political system designed to form governments through coalitions, it was no surprise that those organisations that self-identified as ‘democratic socialists’ would enter the new government. However, this seat at the table came with conditions set by Boric—namely full commitment to the campaign programme, which includes, among other things, cancelation of student debt, elimination of the current private pension system, and tax reform.

These reforms are in large part based on the demands which emerged from popular movements throughout the post-dictatorship years, which became stronger during the social uprising. However, it remains to be seen whether this government alliance will be able to gel into a political coalition capable of delivering these reforms, and under which political principles this coalition would exist in the long-term. We cannot ignore that the traditional parties in this alliance, which governed for over twenty years, have been part of the problem faced by the people of Chile in the age of neoliberalism.

Choosing this politically-diverse Cabinet has led commentators to call Boric’s strategy a moderate one. This charge has been motivated primarily by the appointment of Mario Marcel, governor of the Central Bank and a figure politically close to the Concertación grouping, as the new minister of finance. This was a move taken by Boric to attempt to secure market stability in the wake of his victory. When addressed with the question of moderation, Boric has argued that he is not taking a conservative approach to social transformation or to the political programme, but that he is weighing political compromises as a means of achieving change.

This means pushing forward a progressive agenda that does everything possible under the current conditions. The position of moderation or compromise politics, which seems to be the perception of this Cabinet, in reality reflects the difficult position in which the new government finds itself. Over the next four years, it will need to convey and connect the power of the streets, formed by social movements and social organisations, with the politics of traditional parties (such as the ex-Concertación) and a divided Parliament. All this will also be complicated by the writing of a new Constitution through the constitutional convention.

The constitutional convention has a different political and social composition to the new government. The convention is more socially diverse, including indigenous communities in a way that the Cabinet does not. It is also dominated by independents, particularly members of social movements, such as environmental activists, feminists, and housing organisations. Their politics, less institutionalised and elitist, is pushing significant left-wing constitutional transformation.

Activists have been critical of the role of traditional political parties throughout the process, making clear their disconnection with popular and working-class movements. This tension could also be part of the political weighing-up that Boric’s government will have to deal with in order to align the programme with what is possible within the representative system.

Moderation is not the most important dimension to examine in Boric’s government. Rather, we need to focus on the contestation emerging from society and which is shifting the country significantly to the left. It is the tension between the government and these social movements which will shape the next four years.