To Govern, Chile’s Boric Will Have to Build Bridges

World Politics Review, 23.12.2021
Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, profesor de ciencia política (U. Diego Portales) e investigador 
del Centro sobre estudios de Cohesión y Conflicto Social

In winning Chile’s presidential election on Dec. 19, Gabriel Boric set two new records. First, at the age of 36, he will become the youngest president in Chile’s history. Second, his tally of 4.5 millions votes is the most ever for a Chilean presidential candidate

These two new records are intimately related. Boric and his team represent a new generation of leadership, and as such, they were able to mobilize sectors of the electorate that had previously remained uninvolved in electoral politics. Since Chile’s transition to democracy in 1989, the country’s politics has been characterized by declining turnout levels. However, the second round of the presidential election, which took place Sunday, can be thought of as a turning point. More than 8 million people went to the polls, the highest level of electoral participation in Chile’s democratic era. Initial analyses of exit polls suggest that this increase was due to the massive mobilization of younger cohorts, particularly women and inhabitants of large cities, as well as socio-economically deprived groups that normally don’t participate.

As such, Boric’s rise to power already represents major change for Chile’s politics. But whether it will also augur major changes ahead depends on his ability to forge partnerships beyond the ranks of the far-left political family from which he has emerged.

Two main factors help explain why Boric—who came to prominence as a leader of the student protest movement in the early 2010s and has served as a far-left representative in Congress since 2014—won so many additional votes compared to the first round of the presidential election, which took place on Nov. 21. On the one hand, although he continued to defend leftist policy proposals, he also showed signs of moderation, particularly with regard to his embrace of progressive, rather than far-reaching economic and tax reforms. By showing a willingness to compromise, he was able to secure the support of two important political rivals—the Christian Democratic Party and the Socialist Party—while also reassuring large sectors of the electorate that want to see gradual, rather than sweeping transformations. On the other hand, he addressed several topics—in particular, the need to rethink migration policy and combat crime—to which he had not given much emphasis previously and which are normally topics of predilection of the Chilean right, rather than the left.

For all Boric’s skillfulness as a campaigner, however, another factor is crucial when it comes to understanding why so many people voted for him: his opponent. Jose Antonio Kast spent his political career in the Union Democrata Independiente, or UDI, one of Chile’s traditional right-wing parties, but he opted to run for president as an outsider, creating his own electoral vehicle, the “Partido Republicano,” to do so. His criticisms of mainstream right-wing leaders and parties for their alleged betrayal of conservative principles, as well as the policy agenda he ran on, put him in the mold of Donald Trump in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Kast’s followers argue that his immediate and conciliatory concession to Boric after the election results became clear Sunday shows that he should not be equated with these far-right leaders. However, Boric’s massive victory gave him no room to claim fraud.

In fact, Kast’s program articulated a populist, radical right agenda, characterized by the defense of authoritarian values, the promotion of nativist ideas and the formulation of harsh criticism against progressive actors who are depicted as “the corrupt establishment.” On the campaign trail, he spoke about the need to build walls and ditches on Chile’s border to deal with illegal immigration, proposed to close the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and promised to combat not only crime but also social protests with an iron fist.

That platform resonated with Chileans who fear the transformations the country has experienced over the past two years, in which social protest movements called into question the neoliberal model that was installed under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, but remained relatively untouched well into the democratic era. Nevertheless, as Sunday’s results demonstrated, those voters proved to be in the minority. As importantly, Kast’s agenda continues to be deeply resisted by large swaths of the population. Pre-election opinion polls by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the polling company DATAVOZ revealed that almost half of the Chilean electorate disapproved of Kast, compared to just over one-third that was unfavorable to Boric.

Nor is it a coincidence that women and younger voters, in particular, were crucial to Boric’s victory. Similar trends have been observed in Western Europe, where the populist radical right has also generated strong feelings of disapproval that can then lead to the mobilization of important segments of the voting public against its candidates.

Worryingly, despite Kast’s extremism, Chile’s mainstream right-wing parties continued to vocally support him, arguing that Boric’s election would usher in policies that would turn Chile into a duplicate of Venezuela under the late Hugo Chavez. In doing so, the Chilean right once again stumbled on its conservative dogmatism, instead of recognizing that what Chilean voters are demanding is a welfare model similar to that of Western Europe, as well as respect for progressive values on issues related to the environment and gender. This was also reflected in Kast’s focus during the campaign on aspects of Boric’s political background that raised fears among a small segment of the electorate, but made little sense to most others.

Rather than embrace the approach of modern center-right figures such as former German Chancellor Merkel in Germany or French President Emmanuel Macron, right-wing leaders and parties in Chile almost automatically endorsed the agenda of a populist, radical right demagogue, a brand of politics that is putting democracy at risk worldwide. This is certainly bad news for Chilean democracy and for Boric, as he is almost guaranteed to face staunch opposition from the very beginning of his presidency.

As a result, one of the main challenges for the new president will be his ability to govern. He does not have a majority in Congress, which was elected on Nov. 21 at the time of the first round of the presidential election, and his coalition includes the Communist Party, which is not keen on the incremental approach Boric campaigned and won on. Meanwhile, the business community is maintaining a “wait and see” attitude toward Boric, and it remains to be seen the extent to which he can build an alliance with mainstream figures and parties on the left that he has criticized in the past.

One thing Boric has going for him, though, is that he is not alone. He is part of a new generation of leftist politicians that has emerged in the past decade, first as leaders of successive waves of social protest movements, and more recently in Congress. Some of them are particularly gifted campaigners and organizers, but they have limited experience at the executive level. For this reason, building bridges between these new progressive forces and the older ones that preceded them is crucial. Without the support and involvement of longstanding leftist politicians, as well as of like-minded independents, Boric’s government is doomed to fail.

On the other hand, if Boric can build a broad alliance between progressive forces, he can pave the way for the emergence of a powerful political project that seems to be attractive to a sizeable share of Chile’s electorate. And in so doing, he might transform the country into a role model for a novel left-wing agenda that can succeed beyond Chile.

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