Chile’s Big Step Forward

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The end of 2021 has seen several shifts in the Latin American political landscape. In November alone, the Peronists took a bruising defeat in the Argentine midterms, and the socialist former first lady of Honduras became the Central American country’s first female president.

However, there has been no bigger story than that of the Chilean presidential election, which concluded on 19 December. The winner, leftist Gabriel Boric, received over 55% of the second-round vote. Boric, a 35-year-old former student activist, defeated opponent José Antonio Kast following a bitterly-fought and polarizing presidential campaign. Kast conceded the race Sunday night, shortly after incumbent president Sebastián Piñera tweeted his congratulations to Boric.

While final polls heading into election day gave Boric a slight edge, the result is nonetheless significant. Kast received endorsements from not only President Piñera, but also former candidates Sebastián Sichel and Franco Parisi. His meteoric rise in the past few months culminated in a victory in the first round. And as late as mid-November, he was the favorite to win the second round, despite his far-right social views.

Yet Boric’s double-digit margin of victory on Sunday suggests a rejection of Kast’s right-wing politics and discourse. A tattooed leftist backed by the Communist Party winning in a historically conservative country indicates a thirst for change, a thirst that could not be quenched by more centrist politicians such as Sichel or Yasna Provoste. And in the months before his March inauguration, President-Elect Boric will need to devise a roadmap for the change he’s promised.

How We Got Here

Following the first round, the key trend of the election became that of a drive towards the center. Kast, an ultraconservative who’s been characterized as Chile’s version of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, sought to sell himself as a market-friendly law-and-order candidate, necessary to stop the rise of communism. He quieted his persistent praise and defense of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, if slightly, in order to appeal to warier centrist voters. And he attempted to paint his reactionary views as moderate, selling himself as the candidate of stability and security.

Meanwhile, Gabriel Boric went for a similar moderate route, perhaps finding it easier due to his pragmatic record. Whereas Kast has a hardline record that includes opposing abortion in all circumstances and cracking down on immigration, Boric has played more of a fluid role on his side of the political aisle. He’s a leftist who pushes for green investments and expanded social spending, but also criticizes the Venezuelan regime. And while he’s been elected on a platform that includes replacing Chile’s private pension system with a public alternative, Boric also knows firsthand that he will have certain key institutional roadblocks with which to contend.

The biggest of these? The constitutional convention.

The Constitutional Caveat

In October 2019, citizens took to the streets in the largest-scale protest in modern Chilean history, the so-called Estallido Social. They protested against increased subway fares in Santiago, persistent income inequality, and growing privatization in a country already known for its long-running neoliberal economic model.

The protestors, which numbered in the millions at times, continued their demonstrations throughout the fall and winter of 2019, crippling President Piñera’s administration – and forcing him to drastically reshuffle his cabinet, amidst calls for his resignation – until the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic the following March. And the consequences extended even deeper than simply the government’s popularity, as October 2020 saw citizens voting overwhelmingly to draft a replacement to the existing Pinochet-era constitution.

The constitutional convention which is tasked with writing this new constitution is the defining institution of Chile’s modern political scene. Its 155 constituent members – stemming from all of the country’s major parties – are expected to present their proposal within the next year. Anything and everything is on the table, including new elections or even a switch to a parliamentary system, both of which would eliminate President-Elect Boric’s mandate altogether.

As a politician who negotiated the agreement that led to the October 2020 referendum, Boric is intimately aware of the uncertainty surrounding the convention. And yet, as head of state in 2022 with the constitution’s implementation, he will be the first to reckon with its consequences.

What to Expect Looking Forward

After a polarizing campaign, Chilean voters have made a definitive choice. When asked to select between progressivism and conservatism, between social reform and a step back to Pinochet-era social policies, they have chosen to go with the former. In a hemisphere that has seen right-wing firebrands like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro elected, the results in Chile – as with those of Peru earlier this year – demonstrate a turn away from the populist right.

However, President-Elect Boric faces key challenges to his policy priorities. He’s declared intentions to reduce the workweek to 40 hours, alongside environmental policies such as creation of a fund to ensure water security and expansion of the rail network. But all of these will need support from the country’s legislature, as will his pension reform plans.

Against the backdrop of a constitutional convention that is rewriting the country’s institutions, Boric will need to ensure his government maintains the elements of Chile’s economic model that have led to decades of growth, while ensuring he delivers the promised change on which he was elected.

Otherwise, he needs only look back two years to see the consequences of dissatisfaction.