Chilean president Boric’s election was a movement victory

  • March 11, 2022

Anarchism & Autonomy

The victory of Chile’s new president Gabriel Boric laid bare the interconnectedness of street-level and electoral politics: abandoning one can compromise the other.

This piece was originally by Jacobin América Latina as part of an ongoing collaboration with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation on the Chilean Constitutional Convention.

Translation from Spanish by Bree Busk.

On Sunday, December 19, 2021, Gabriel Boric Font was elected President of Chile. In an election with unprecedented levels of participation, the candidate representing the left-wing Apruebo Dignidad (“I Approve Dignity”) coalition beat the candidate of the extreme right, José Antonio Kast, by nearly twelve points. With this victory, Boric became the youngest incoming president in the history of the country, claiming a record number of votes. Today, on March 11, 2022, President Sebastián Piñera is handing over power to a former leader of the student movement that mobilized for public education during his first term in the early 2010s.

The electoral cycle of the revolt

The battle for the presidency was the latest in a series of elections that have taken place in Chile since the fare-evasion protests carried out by Santiago high school students exploded into a country-wide revolt in 2019, opening a new world of political possibilities. Since then, Chileans have voted in the plebiscite to draft a new constitution and, when it passed, voted again to elect the delegates to the Constitutional Convention. Between 2020 and 2021, elections were also held for virtually all governmental offices — mayors, governors, congresspeople, city councilors — culminating with the presidential election in December 2021. Now, all that remains is the 2022 plebiscite to ratify the new magna carta. Among such a plethora of elections, it was inevitable that the ballot box would play a central role in this new period of struggle.

In the last decade, the high level of voter apathy has been key to understanding local political behavior. Since the abolition of compulsory voting in 2012, voter turnout has been on a steady decrease, a trend that was reversed for the first time in the October 2020 plebiscite for a new constitution. The levels of electoral participation have been unstable since then.

Everything points to the fact that the politicized working classes have been selective when it comes to elections. At times, low electoral participation has benefited conservative forces — especially during parliamentary elections. In 2020 it became clear, however, that the people had picked the presidential runoff as a battle worth fighting, and the resulting high electoral turnout determined its outcome.

The electoral campaigns of the past two years and their respective levels of popular participation have been guided by the same two goals that also characterized the popular revolt: challenging neoliberalism and those who have administered it on the one hand, and the legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship on the other. This was evident in the October 2020 referendum for a new constitution, as well as in last December’s presidential election. The latter also took on the character of a referendum, with Boric representing a path forwards for the demands raised in the revolt and Kast representing nostalgia for the dictatorship.

In a matter of a few weeks, the mass mobilizations of 2019 opened the door to finally putting an end to Pinochet’s constitution — something that none of the political parties of the democratic transition could manage in the 30 years they were in power. As a result, during the presidential runoff, the road was closed to any candidate that sought to restore the legacy of the dictatorship, thus safeguarding the Constitutional Convention — the institution designed to dismantle that very legacy.

Processes of social coordination and mobilization were sustained throughout the pandemic and have given rise to a cycle of mass politicization. Broad sectors of the population have come to understand the relationship between street protests and electoralism, and no longer see them as separate paths. They realize that, at certain junctures, abandoning one can compromise the other. At a time when elections are characterized by low voter turnout and the anti-establishment left is exerting heightened influence, we are seeing a turning point for the recomposition of the forces capable of bringing about real change.

The presidential primaries

On July 18, 2020, presidential primaries were held to determine, by popular vote, who would be the presidential candidates of the right-wing Chile Vamos coalition and the left and center-left Apruebo Dignidad coalition, respectively. Gabriel Boric won the primary of the latter coalition with a total of 1.7 million votes, beating the candidate of the Communist Party. Sebastián Sichel, an independent candidate with backing of the far-right UDI party, was elected as the candidate of the Chile Vamos coalition. A total of three million votes were cast in the primaries: more than at any other time in history.

Four months later, during the first round of the presidential elections on November 21, Boric obtained 1.8 million votes, expanding his base by only 100,000 votes compared with the primary. While he managed to beat numerous candidates from other political sectors, he came in behind the candidate of the extreme right, José Antonio Kast, who had not participated in the primaries and who advanced to the runoff in first place. The relatively low turnout in this election — among other factors — put the left-wing candidate in a position that would require the reversal of historical electoral trends.

One of the most remarkable outcomes of the first round of the presidential elections was that the main political coalitions that governed post-dictatorship Chile — the self-styled “centers” of the left and the right — lost their historical hegemony and could not proceed to the next round. For the first time, coalitions such as Apruebo Dignidad and Frente Social Cristiano (“Christian Social Front,” an extreme-right coalition), both founded within the framework of post-revolt contention, moved onto the second round.

Another notable aspect of the first round of the election was the success of Franco Parisi and his Partido de la Gente (“People’s Party”), who came in third with almost one million votes. He arrived on the scene as the great outsider of the first round with a story that revived the neoliberal promise of success through individual effort from an alleged anti-elite and anti-abuse position. Unlike the parties of the establishment coalitions of the last thirty years, which more or less begrudgingly lined up behind Boric and Kast, Parisi did not initially align himself with either of them, leaving the million votes he represented up for grabs in the runoff.

After the first round, the “People’s Party” became increasingly associated with a policy of patriarchal restitution, which was expressed in the campaign, through its male-dominated voter base, and by the candidate himself, who owes thousands of dollars in child support payments. This issue became politicized in an unprecedented way, opening a public debate in which Boric and Kast had to take part while taking into account how their positions would impact women’s opinions of the campaigns. While the former made a play for the women’s vote, the latter played down the economic violence and closed ranks with the deadbeat dad.

The runoff and its results

The presidential runoff took on the character of a referendum, and an epic one at that. Less than a year after the plebiscite opened the doors to a Constitutional Convention, Chile was once again facing a decision between the possibility of continuing the cycle of transformation already in progress and the threat of its most radical setback. This was expressed not only in the campaign, but also in the final result, which echoed the voting percentages of the 1988 plebiscite when the country decided whether or not it wanted Pinochet to remain in power. At that time, the “No” vote won with 56 percent. As Mark Fisher would say, more than 30 years later, we are confronting the ghosts that besiege democracy with the recomposition of its historical divisions and political correlation.

Since the runoff election system was first implemented, the Chilean presidency has always been won by the candidate who entered the second round as the frontrunner. In 2021, this historical trend was upset by virtue of a single determining factor: 8 percent of the voters who stayed at home in the first round decided to go to the polls, thus surpassing all electoral turnout records in recent history with a total of 55.6 percent of the population, amounting to roughly 1.2 million more votes cast than in the first round.

This increased turnout literally turned the election upside down. Whereas in November Kast was ahead of Boric in 11 of Chile’s 16 regions, by December Boric was ahead of Kast by the same margins, even obtaining over 60 percent of the votes in a quarter of the regions from the north to the south. Where did these 1.2 million new voters come from and what motivated them to cast their ballots?

Women and feminism: The decisive factor

As the results of the first presidential round were announced, a signal fire was lit by the popular organizations. It always seemed likely that José Antonio Kast would make it to the second round, but amongst the popular organizations and within Apruebo Dignidad itself, no one seemed to have considered the possibility of him actually coming in first. Although some polls had predicted that this would happen, their credibility had long been undermined and, moreover, such an outcome seemed counterintuitive. How could a candidate from the extreme right triumph in the same country that just experienced a massive popular uprising against neoliberalism and state violence?

Although the Apruebo Dignidad coalition had improved its voter turnout with every election, thereby positioning itself as the most viable alternative to face Kast once he had emerged as a real contender, social movements and popular organizations largely did not publicly support or campaign for it or its candidates. It was evident that many of those who participated in such movements intended to vote for Boric, but any collective deliberation or public position-taking simply did not occur.

The bewilderment that accompanied the night of November 21 when the results of the first round were announced, quickly gave way to a series of initiatives and actions, with individuals and groups calling for an independent grassroots campaign in support of Apruebo Dignidad. Within hours, a sense of urgency spread throughout the country’s broad spectrum of organized social movements which, rather than leading to fear and paralysis, brought with it the first responses from those who had previously stood on the electoral sidelines.

That very night, the March 8 Feminist Coordinating Committee (CF8M) called an emergency meeting to discuss the results and what positions should be taken. A public declaration was agreed upon under the slogan, “Today and not Tomorrow” in support of the candidacy of Gabriel Boric and an open call for a Feminist Anti-Fascist Assembly. This assembly was the first of many landmark events carried out in the three short days that followed the first round and was attended by nearly 2,000 people, both in person at the University of Santiago de Chile (USACH) and remotely through a parallel virtual assembly which took place online. In both spaces, comments, critiques, and proposals were made by activists representing a wide range of student, labor, feminist, abortion rights, anti-racist and LGBTQ+ organizations, among others, as well as several popular assemblies. All these organizations, many of which had never directly participated in electoral politics or put much stock in that path for enacting change, acknowledged the need to take a step forward in a transversal and affirmative call not only to vote for Gabriel Boric, but to pull out all the stops to expand voter turnout.

There was a collective urgency to defeat the project of patriarchal, neoliberal and authoritarian restoration that loomed over us. In this context, the experience of feminists in Brazil in the run up to Jair Bolsonaro taking power was at the forefront during the day’s discussions: simply saying “not him” (Ele Não) had not been enough to change the outcome of that election. The independent campaign would have to clearly communicate its position and demands from the outset. As the caregivers’ organizations said: much more was at stake than in previous elections. It was about safeguarding hard-won rights as well as the lives of women, girls and others of marginalized gender identities and sexual orientations. Everyone present knew that it was necessary to defeat Kast and that this defeat had to be overwhelming. And so it was.

When Kast’s Republican Party (a far-right and Pinochetista party, founded in mid-2019) questioned women’s suffrage and sexual and reproductive rights, discriminated against single mothers, and even had to issue a public apology for its initial campaign pledge to eliminate the Ministry of Women and Gender Equality, the feminist and LGBTIQ+ movement made a key move to assert its power. It was those same right-wing sectors who have always said that our daily lives were not a real political issue who put our lives, desires and rights at the center of their program.

A pivotal achievement of this transversal and united call from the feminist movement was the event themed around the slogan “Nuestra urgencia por vencer” (“Our urgency to win”), held in the final days of the campaign. The event drew the participation of the feminists whose generation had stood up to the dictatorship in the 1980s, historical members of the Mujeres por la Vida group, as well as artists, activists and members of various organizations, and even members of Apruebo Dignidad. The diversity and unity of this moment set a significant precedent bringing together a new constellation of forces that eventually delivered Boric his victory.

Joining the campaign against these right-wing sectors also meant, necessarily, asserting an ethic of tenderness and care in answer to their communication strategy based on hate and fake news. On an intimate level, many of us cast our votes as an act of self-care and out of concern for friends, relatives and others we knew could be at risk if Kast won the presidency. This call, which was not a vote of confidence in Boric, would indeed require open campaigning without half measures.

As the days went by, more and more organized sectors publicly called on their bases to vote for Gabriel Boric, some in the name of anti-fascism, others alluding to a program of transformation that spoke to the aspirations behind historical struggles and still others in the recognition that Boric’s victory was a necessary condition to keeping the door open to building and securing their own political alternative.

Alongside the feminist organizations, trade unions, workers’ associations, socio-environmental organizations, leftist groups and even Evangelical Church organizations led the charge. Noteworthy figures from the revolt also publicly expressed their support, such as Gustavo Gatica and the recently-elected senator Fabiola Campillai — both of whom were fully blinded by police rounds — and student activists such as Víctor Chanfreau, a former spokesperson of the High School Student Coordinating Assembly, an organization known for its antagonism towards electoral politics.

This united force was strengthened by the transversal support that Boric’s candidacy received amongst the delegates of the Constitutional Convention who represented the different alliances of independents and the reserved seats held by Indigenous delegates. All these organizations and actors, who had not taken any public positions before the first round, made statements, organized activities and campaigned during the second round.

The strongholds of the second round

Voter turnout increased at an average of 8 percent throughout the country, with a record 11 percent increase reported in the Metropolitan Region of Santiago, representing 40 percent of the electoral roll. These new votes came mainly from the marginalized and working class neighborhoods of this large urban area. Of the 52 districts that make up the capital, it was the poorest ones, which previously had been associated with lowest turnout rates, that came out en masse to vote for Boric — in some districts by more than 70 percent.

All of this came to pass in spite of the obvious government interference with public transportation, which hindered voting access in the most isolated urban areas. Distances usually covered in 15 minutes took two hours on election day. The goal was clearly to impact voting in the working class and poor areas that might turn out for Boric.

The rural district of Paine deserves special mention, as it is something of a fiefdom and homebase for the Kast family. In a complete reversal of the first round results, Boric won in Paine with 54.6 percent of the votes, defeating Kast on his own turf. Meanwhile, with few exceptions, the only places where Kast achieved 70 percent of the vote were the three districts inhabited by the richest 1 percent of the country — the very same three districts that voted against the drafting of a new constitution in the 2020 plebiscite.

Other key districts where Boric achieved a super majority of the votes were located in areas impacted by socio-environmental devastation which, scarred by extractivism, have been declared “sacrifice zones.” Petorca, Puchuncaví, Huasco, and Freirina — all sites of long environmental struggles — turned out to halt the advance of Kast and his policies of climate denialism.

The women’s vote proved to be a third bulwark against Kast. The official demographic data regarding voter age and sex has yet to be released, but according to estimates published by Decide Chile (owned by “big data” company Unlhoster), “women under 50 were the engine of Boric’s victory,” highlighting that their participation soared in the runoff, where they supported the Apruebo Dignidad candidate at rates higher than the national average. While in the first round 55.5 percent of women voters under 50 turned out, in the runoff participation grew to 65 percent, making this sector a key area of advantage. In the end, Boric won 63 percent of the votes of women under 50.

The 1.2 million votes that decided Boric’s victory came from self-organization, from the poor neighborhoods that took a stand and mobilized, from the areas devastated by extractivism, from working class youth and women; that is to say, from those sectors who decided to take matters into their own hands and stop the force that threatened their lives. The open question that remains is, in the days and years to come, which forces will Boric rely on for support and for whom will he ultimately govern?

Without illusions

We cannot predict the future, but we can reconstruct the steps that have brought us to our present circumstances. Most of the social sectors that chose to break with their practice of electoral abstentionism — thus making Boric’s victory possible — first and foremost mobilized based on their certainty that Kast had to be defeated at the ballot box rather than on any sort of trust or faith in the now president-elect. Numerous social organizations campaigned with a clear message of independence from the Apruebo Dignidad coalition. The role of memory remains an important factor in today’s political dynamics — not only the historical memories that said “never again” to Pinochet and his legacy but also those much more recent memories forged in the heat of the revolt.

On November 15, 2019, in the middle of the revolt, Gabriel Boric signed the Agreement for Social Peace and the New Constitution which created a path to the constitutional process. By intervening in this way, he stepped on the emerging grassroots efforts to build a truly democratic constitutional process from the bottom up. He took this action independently and behind the backs of his base and, together with the terms of the agreement itself, he came in for criticism from broad popular sectors. The spirit of the revolt ran counter to institutional solutions and Boric’s actions were viewed as an attempt to clear the streets more than a real answer to popular demands. His “solution” to the crisis was seen as a capitulation to the Piñera government that flew in the face of the massive demand in the streets to recall the president for systematic human rights violations.

This provoked a split and exodus of members from Boric’s own coalition, as well as questions on the part of several movements and mobilized sectors. Subsequently, Boric’s decision — and that of several of his fellow MPs — to approve a bill that authorized severe penalties for various forms of protest in the midst of the revolt only drew further public outcry. Boric and his colleagues later apologized for their decision, but it was insufficient to undo the distrust their actions had engendered.

It is no coincidence that the demand to free the political prisoners — those still awaiting their trials under house arrest and those already sentenced for their alleged actions during the revolt — was at the top of many minds the night of December 19, 2021, when, after his victory was announced, Boric addressed his first speech to the country as president-elect. Among the more than 100,000 attendees who gathered in downtown Santiago to celebrate the historic moment, the chant of “free the political prisoners” broke out again and again. In response, Boric interrupted his speech to say: “We are already talking to their families.” The following day, the first official measure announced by the president-elect was the withdrawal of all charges against the political prisoners of the revolt that were taken under the State Security Law. Although this action was more symbolic than practical — not all the prisoners were charged under this law and in the case of those who are, it is not the only law being applied to them — it was undoubtedly a good sign.

One month earlier, after the results of the first presidential round were in, Apruebo Dignidad had quickly sought to draw closer to the center-left parties associated with the former Concertación coalition whose candidates had held power from the return of democracy in 1990 to the first election of Sebastián Piñera in 2010. The campaign’s initial effort was concentrated on capturing the votes of the “center.” However, as the days went by, the impact of the campaign emerging from the social movements began to be felt, turning out droves for the events in cities and towns as the presidential candidate toured the country. Thousands of messages of popular support and affection for Boric went viral on social media and in the press, giving the campaign a creative and popular character that it had previously lacked. In contrast, Kast never managed to draw in big crowds and, fearful of his electorate, gained more attention for avoiding any physical contact with his supporters.

Correspondingly, Apruebo Dignidad seemed to recognize that the key to winning the runoff was not limited to securing the votes of the center-left parties and that they would need to approach those who had previously stood on the sidelines — and it knew how to do it. However, the campaign also strategically called upon the reputation of former president Michelle Bachelet, who still has wide support among the population despite being one of the major figures of the former Concertación coalition. Bachelet, the current United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, came to Chile to explicitly endorse Boric. Within a few weeks, an unprecedented coordination was achieved, which brought together both the main figures of the past 30 years since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship and those of us who had become its main critics during the revolt.

Apruebo Dignidad won the presidential election with a program of reforms that includes important and heartfelt popular demands, particularly in the extension of social rights to historically excluded groups. However, with the exception of the Communist Party, it is not a coalition with a predominantly popular base. Thanks to the diverse popular sectors that mobilized to put them in power, it now has the possibility to change that. It remains to be seen, however, whether the coalition will govern on behalf of the people or whether it will limit itself to offering a friendlier version of the same script that was written during the democratic transition.

The answer to this question will determine how much space will exist in the short-term for the development of emerging political forces with anti-capitalist orientations. It depends in part on the coordination of popular organizations that have, in this cycle, chosen the path of institutional contention outside the traditional parties. As long as Apruebo Dignidad fails to show results, we reserve the right to question it.

The opposition

Beyond the fairly critical positions from which various popular sectors gave their support to Boric, it is certain that the role of the opposition in the coming presidential term will be monopolized by the extreme right. It will also be a very different type of opposition from the one occupied by the people under previous administration, since it will rely on using mainstream media coverage to its full advantage. This strategy has already seen success as various outlets made themselves available to platform talking points discrediting the Constitutional Convention and promoting an “anti-communist” discourse in response to any mention of social reform.

The day before the election, Teresa Marinovic, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and a member of the far-right Republican Party, published a column with the title “Kast has already won.” Anticipating the electoral defeat of her sector, she stated: “The presidential election is not far away, but the results of this runoff are already known: Kast won. He has won even if he obtains a lower vote than Gabriel Boric, Kast has won. He has dismantled the conventional wisdom that his politics were not viable, that he was doomed to represent a marginal niche.” She is not wrong: Kast went from having won 7.9 percent of the vote in his 2017 presidential run to consolidating his leadership by bringing in the “liberal” right wing and consolidating the formation of its own bench.

However, unlike what she claims in that same column, the distance between Trump, Bolsonaro and Kast is not an issue of character. The extreme right in Chile merely followed an international script, a formula, but one cannot compare the United States in 2016 or Brazil in 2018 to this country that has had its political horizons transformed by a popular revolt.

In a scenario impacted by mass mobilization and politicization, Kast has thus far failed to develop a mobilizing force of his own or propose a single thing to the country. His campaign consisted of an effort to depoliticize the debate and to strip it of programmatic depth. He thought he could speak to the Chile of the past. As such, Kast can be understood as a representative of the bourgeoisie that mistakes its wishes for reality and their wish is that the revolt had never happened.

Today, we breathe a sigh of relief for having prevented Kast and his anti-woman, anti-LGBTQI+, anti-immigrant and anti-poor program from taking power; for having safeguarded the constitutional process; and for having confirmed once again that when the people decide to pick a battle, they can win it. But we know too well that the fight against neo-fascism does not begin or end at the ballot box. On the contrary, our work has just begun. We also know that it has been the self-styled parties of the left or center-left that, with their policies of precarity, have paved the way for the emergence of these extreme right-wingers.

If we wish to truly defeat the right, both socially and electorally, it will not be by lining up behind establishment parties out of pragmatism or in the name of the lesser evil. At this historic turning point, we must continue to prioritize the work of building our own popular alternative, one that speaks with an indelible voice in open desire for another way of life, one which we have already begun to imagine.

An undertaking that transcends all borders

We would like to use these final words to convey a message to comrades from around the globe, especially those in Latin America. In Chile, we are aware of the international implications of both the recent election and the constitutional process currently underway, all taking place in the midst of a worsening global crisis of predatory neoliberalism. We know that this path opened by the peoples who rose up in the revolt carries with it popular aspirations that cross borders and that we cannot limit ourselves to the defensive position of “no pasarán,” but should instead aspire to an urgent transformative alternative.

We want you to know that — at least within the feminist movement in Chile — every step we have taken has been accompanied by the struggles and lessons, with their attendant successes and mistakes, of numerous peoples. The feminist movements in Poland, Spain and Argentina that rose up in general strikes, the people of Brazil who continue to struggle against and resist the far right denialists, the protests in Ecuador and Colombia, and the revolts in Hong Kong, Lebanon and Sudan — it is impossible to list them all.

If we have successfully added ourselves to this constellation of uprisings and if we have defeated the neo-fascist alternative at the ballot box, it is because we have deliberately decided to let ourselves be guided by the experiences of others. Our wish is that just as we continue observing you in your struggles, today you can be the ones to accompany us and take what lessons you may from this collective experience we have shared. Together, we can keep building this path towards that life that is owed to us, defying all borders.

Javiera Manzi

Javiera Manzi is an anticapitalist feminist activists and former spokesperson for the March 8 Feminist Coordinating Committee (CF8M). Currently, she works as part of the support team for Alondra Carrillo, a feminist delegate to Chile\’s Constitutional Convention.

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Karina Nohales

Karina Nohales is an anticapitalist feminist activists and former spokesperson for the March 8 Feminist Coordinating Committee (CF8M). Currently, she works as part of the support team for Alondra Carrillo, a feminist delegate to Chile’s Constitutional Convention.

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