Chile between political extremes

Recently, Chile has had a very busy and, especially, very contradictory political life. Truth be told, what the Andean country is experiencing is the exhaustion of a model of coexistence that has political and institutional roots in the Pinochet dictatorship and its transition to democracy. In fact, in Chile, the transition from an authoritarian regime to democracy was not planned by anyone but was an unforeseen accident by the dictatorial regime following the unexpected defeat of a plebiscite it had hoped to win in 1989.

As a result, Chile today still has a constitution inherited from the authoritarian period, and an ultra-liberal economic model where – among many other issues – education and public health is “paid” and the market manages retirement. And, therefore, a woman receives less money having contributed the same as a man, because statistically, she has a longer life expectancy.

Thus, regardless of who has governed since 1990, the Pinochetist model inherited has not been changed. This has been the root of the discontent of many sectors of the citizenry (especially the younger ones) who have noticed that institutional politics had very little margin to change things. A discontent that erupted more than a decade ago with the rebellion of high school students and that did not stop worsening until 2019, when protests took to the streets of the capital. It was then that the conservative president, Sebastián Piñera, promised to draft a new Constitution.

This promise was a hope and a mirage at the same time, because many people conferred magical results on the constituent process. A sort of re-foundation of the Chilean state and society, without taking into account two situations: that while it had to manage a complex reality in a context of severe health and economic crisis; and that the reality of a country is not transformed from writing a document, but can only be changed with the political will of many sectors.

Since then, electorally speaking, many things have happened: a presidential election where the left-wing candidate Gabriel Boric won, two plebiscites (one to say if they wanted to change the Constitution and one to reject a draft Constitution) and two elections to elect members of a constituent council (the first one won by the left and the last one – held last Sunday, May 7 – in which the far right had a massive majority).

In little more than two years, Chile has gone from being the white hope of the alternative left (with a young president formed in the social movements) to the authoritarian threat of the radical right of Trumpist and Bolsonarist roots. That is why today many analysts wonder how to elect in 2021 a constituent assembly with an absolute majority of left-wing independents, and two years later a new constituent assembly with a supermajority of right-wingers, led by the Pinochet-inspired Republican Party.

It is obvious that the victory of the far right is related to a kind of reactionary mood that is sweeping the world, where discontent, anger, and frustration are channeled into characters like Trump, Bolsonaro or Meloni. Indeed, the winner of the last electoral contest, José Antonio Kast, belongs to that ideological family and despite his “anti-politics” discourse, he has held public office since 1996, always by the hand of the conservative and traditional UDI party, and his brother and mentor was Pinochet’s minister.

Beyond this global ideological surge, the results of May 7 are also related to the fact that the most relevant campaign issues in these elections were those that usually favor the right wing: immigration, security and inflation. The arrival, for years now, of Venezuelan immigrants has caused the racist discourse calling for the closing of borders to flourish. Likewise, the growing concern about the increase in crime (many linked to drug networks) and the deterioration of security has meant the welcome of the “iron fist” discourse always used by the radical right. And the issue of inflation and the high cost of living, the result of an international recession, has eroded President Boric’s government.

Yet, these two issues feed back into the institutional framework in which the elections were held. According to the electoral law, the 16 districts of small size and with an open proportional formula has meant the over-representation of the radical right of the Republican Party, which with 35.6% of the vote has almost obtained half of the representation. While the traditional center formations that ran with the coalition “Todo por Chile” did not obtain any representatives despite having obtained 10% of the vote. In addition to this institutional format, the “compulsory voting” mandate was added, which brought to the polls a sector of the citizenry that usually does not vote and, when it does, seems to opt for right-wing populist discourse.

Besides, the left will have to make a self-criticism, since the blame for the defeat is not only the responsibility of the environment or of the powers that be. To tell the truth, the previous assembly, with a majority of members from the social left, did not have the capacity to manage the previous mandate. The previous process of drafting a constitutional proposal was tainted by a tragic combination of maximalism, media overexposure and, to some extent, frivolity. The presence of 20% of null and blank votes on May 7 is the expression of the weariness accumulated by a sector of the citizens with respect to the work of their politicians.

The Chilean constituent process is not over, though. The newly elected Constituent Council will have to work on a draft fundamental law prepared by a Council of Experts composed of academics. Finally, the Chilean people will have to go back to the polls in December, once the new draft Constitution has been agreed upon (or not), to decide whether to accept it or not.

The paradox of this new juncture is that President Boric – after knowing the result – has suggested that the right wing not do the same as they did in the previous constituent and seek consensus. Meanwhile, Kast’s party, which did not want a new Constitution, will have to lead the constituent assembly.

In any case, there are those who assimilate these results with the beginning of a counterrevolutionary stage. If the elections of May 15 and 16, 2021 to choose the members of the first constituent assembly and the victory, on December 19 of the same year, of Gabriel Boric in the presidential elections meant a “Chilean spring”, the results of the last election seem to show the advent of autumn. Or, as a fan of historical similes would say (and thinking of the French Revolution), a process of authoritarian closure has begun in Chile: the “Thermidor” phase has started.

*Translated from Spanish by Micaela Machado Rodrigues

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