How Chile’s Past Has Marred Its Political Present

by Fernanda Alvarez Piñeiro

Protesters demanding a new Constitution in 2019 in the midst of the estallido social. Photo by José Pereira

Following the reinauguration of democracy in 1988, Chile became a country of exceptionalities that was hailed as a beacon of stability in a continent otherwise plagued by fragile institutions and demorphed democracies. Unparalleled economic growth and strong democratic infrastructure characterized Latin America’s golden boy. Nevertheless, the runoff presidential elections to be held on December 19th have shown that Chile is not immune to the woes of political extremism and crippling disillusionment with the establishment. If anything, the elections have shown that this “unexpectedly” dark and uncertain chapter in Chile’s modern history is instead part of a chronicle of a democratic transition gone wrong.

November’s presidential elections have conjured up tangible fears of uncertainty in Chile. Far-right candidate José Antonio Kast amassed the majority of votes with 27.9% of electorate support, closely followed by the leftist former student-leader Gabriel Boric with 25.8% of the vote. Both candidates have been nothing short of controversial. Kast has become infamous due to his public admiration of the Pinochet regime, his staunch defense of the traditional family model, and his proposal to expand the use of state violence against the Mapuche indigenous people in the Arauncanía. Boric has championed proposals that aim to dismantle Chile’s aggressive neoliberal model, which has frightened investors and economic elites with a vested interest in the maintenance of the status quo.

At first glance, Chile seems to be irrevocably polarized. The political speeches of the presidential candidates are diametrically opposed. However, the dilemma isn’t necessarily about polarization, but disillusionment. Turnout for the election was just below 50%, and Chilean voters decisively rejected centrist parties that had been ruling Chile since the transition. 

A Porous Transition

Chile’s transition to democracy was marked by an exemplary reign of peace following the 1988 referendum that rejected Pinochet’s continued grip on executive power. Negotiated between the Pinochet regime and the political parties of the Concertación, the 1989 elections were the first held in the country since the coup that deposed Salvador Allende nearly 20 years earlier. Whilst the transition succeeded on many fronts, including the effective rollback of military power and the absence of violence, negotiations pushed substantive discussions about social policies to the margins. “Emphasis was placed on the need for stability and governmentality,” argues Chilean historian Marcelo Casals. That prioritization “entailed also a large social demobilization and the creation of an administration focused on order and technocracy, rather than social policy.”

President Patricio Aylwin Azócar and General Pinochet, during the transfer of command ceremony in 1990. Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional de Chile

Blocking the path of a more progressive social contract were the features encoded in the 1980 Constitution that stymied the hopes of more reformist governments. “It was the same institutional dynamic inherited from the dictatorship that established a series of mechanisms to precisely limit the sovereign capacity of elected authorities,” Casals remarks. Factors like an electoral system that tended to create high barriers of entry for non-established parties and appointed senators continued to exacerbate a disconnection between the system and civil society. This disconnection made room for the prioritization of the interests of economic elites, which also led to the mercantilization of social rights, namely in the privatization of the pensions system and a semi-private education system.

To add insult to injury, the transition also cemented the position and interests of neoliberal elites. “Strong governmental support was given to big business, letting it achieve unprecedented levels of accumulation of wealth and power that has allowed it to intervene in political decisions,” notes Casals. Such complicity was epitomized in the corruption scandal known as “Pentagate” which brought to light illegal campaign donations granted by the business group Penta to elected officials, particularly those from the rightist party Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI). In a country where the income of the richest is 13.6 times greater than those of the poorest and where the income gap stands at 65% wider than the OECD average, it comes as no surprise that the democratic legitimacy of the center is fragile at best. According to the Latinobarómetro survey, distrust in political parties grew from 43% in 2015 to 57%. “The fact that the two candidates of the runoff election are precisely candidates that don’t belong to the establishment already says a lot about the point of influence to which that economic and political power has eroded the legitimacy of the transition” argues Casals. 

Previous attempts at reform have unsurprisingly failed, even where there has been political will advocating for substantive change. When Michelle Bachelet from the Socialist Party—the first woman to become Chile’s president—secured the presidency for a second time in 2014, her government had a clear mandate of reform. During her first term from 2011 to 2013, students took to the streets to demand the cessation of for-profit education, echoing the structural gaps left wide open by the transition. In addition to educational reform, it was hoped her administration would also fulfill other objectives, including constitutional, tax, and pension reform. “Her administration achieved some progress in terms of universal education, but the other points were left behind”, explains Casals. “There was a strong rightist opposition that blocked reform, including the more conservative sectors of the Concertación.” In other words, the way in which the transition was consolidated created a recipe for future—and inevitable—democratic disillusionment that reached a boiling point in the 2019 estallido social

Revisiting a Historical Script

Chile’s path to disillusionment has long ties to its domestic political landscape.  The country has seen a resurgence of a counterrevolutionary and anti-communist script that holds significant historical roots. According to Casals, in the 1960s, the counterrevolutionary movement that opposed the election of the leftist Unidad Popular appropriated a Cold War anti-communist narrative that understood any action of the Marxist Left as decisive steps towards a totalitarian rule that would abolish religion, the family model, and the nation itself. 

José Antonio Kast, candidate and leader of the Partido Republicano (Republican Party). Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional de Chile

Though the Cold War is over and a carbon copy of this script would have no real traction, some aspects have been readapted and readopted to fit the present. In a recent interview with Conecta2, Kast spokesperson Macarena Santelices noted that the “wretched extreme left models [in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua] have caused a lot of damage and sadly, these unscrupulous politicians don’t reflect on the profound damage they are causing their country”. The fatalism and catastrophizing of a leftist government, therefore, seems to hold important parallels with the anti-communist script used nearly 60 years ago. 

Although both Boric and Kast will have to moderate their dialogue as they race to the political center in a bid to persuade undecided Chileans, the use of this script may mean that a rightist government in Chile could preclude progressive reforms in the country. Most concerningly, perhaps, is Kast’s ideological divergence from the goals of the Constitutional Convention, which depends on the support of the executive for its budget and extension requests. Whilst the absorption and acceptance of this script is not homogenous—and is even ridiculed by some Chilean voters—its shocking use of essentialism answers to segments of Chilean society that have felt the need for a strong “law and order” government following the shock of the 2019 estallido social. The rise of uncertainty has led right-leaning voters to vilify a possible leftist government as a threat to the traditional family model, stability, and Chile’s national identity—just like it did back in the 60s. Nevertheless, history also tells us that even if Kast wins, calls for reform will not be invariably buried in a coffin.

Gabriel Boric, candidate for the Convergencia Social (Social Convergence) party. Photo by Johanna Zárate P. Diputadas y Diputados de Chile

Chile’s history has a strong legacy of civil society mobilization that has actively demanded political change. From women protesting as part of the March of the Empty Pots in 1972 in opposition to the Unidad Popular, to the 2011 student protests, to the 2019 popular demonstrations which saw one in seven Chileans in Santiago take to the streets, democratic mobilization remains a recurrent tool of civic engagement and opposition. As Casals puts it, “there is this historic memory of social progress” driven by popular mobilizations. 

Chileans want reform, not revolution. The fact that the Constitutional Convention is populated by independent candidates that align closely to social democratic norms is a strong testament to that principle. However, as Casals reminds us, “the fact that the desired model is reformist does not mean it will be something soft or small that makes cosmetic changes to the model… it is accompanied by criticism of the economic system that calls for its replacement without inciting a revolution.” 

In many ways, this echoes Allende’s via chilena al socialismo (Chilean path to socialism). Chileans want the democratic institutions and practices that have been at the core of the nation’s myth of exceptionality, but also seek substantive change to make that exceptionality feel like a reality to all Chileans. Making this a tangible truth will heavily depend on who gets elected and their commitment to decisively steering history in the right direction.

Fernanda Alvarez Piñeiro is a UK-based freelance journalist who specializes in Latin American multimedia political analysis. She has written for the Latin America Bureau, LatAm Dialogue, and The London Globalist and is currently pursuing a Bsc in Politics and International Relations at the London School of Economics.

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