Gabriel Boric, Last President of the Old or First President of the New?
The night of November 21 was one of the most painful of the last years in Chile. The results of the first round of the Presidential election gave the first majority to José Antonio Kast. The candidate of Pinochetism and spokesperson for the counter-revolt, of that right which, hit by the revolt of October 2019 could not bear the insubordination of the poor, the feminists and the indigenous.
In second place was Gabriel Boric, a student leader turned parliamentarian, representative of the Frente Amplio [Broad Front] a political alliance which had broken simultaneously with the parties of the neoliberal Transition and with a radical left stuck in a costly marginality. It was the same Boric who, in his own name without the backing of his party, signed the Agreement for Social Peace and the New Constitution in November 2019 leading to a restricted constitutional process and becoming the focus of massive criticism from the popular movement as a whole.
The most significant election since 1970 seemed to lead us into a barbarism far too imaginable for anyone with a memory. Politically mobilised sectors in Chile, openly critical of Boric's rather moderate orientation, made the quick decision to join the campaign to ensure its victory, and above all, a crushing defeat for the Pinochetist candidacy. This became a reality last Sunday the 19th, with an electoral result unprecedented in many aspects. Firstly, Boric (55.9%) was elected with an advantage of more than 11 points over Kast (44.1%). Secondly, participation increased significantly with respect to the first round (55.7% of the roll, versus 47.3% in the first round), surpassing all participation rates since voluntary voting was implemented in 2012. Finally, Boric is the president elected with the highest number of votes in the history of Chile (4,620,671). It is an unprecedented combination in a country that had a long period of high abstention, with the exception of the Plebiscite for the New Constitution of October 2020. Even so, this Sunday almost a million more people participated than for that referendum (7,562,173 and 50.9% of the register).
In a beautiful contrast, the feeling of victory, too long for the peoples of Chile, floods the night of Sunday, December 19, 2021. Hundreds of thousands of people walk the streets throughout Chile to celebrate with each other what they feel is a triumph of their own: having defeated Pinochetism and being able to keep open the cycle of transformations that prompted the popular revolt of October 2019. But it is not only joy but above all, relief. The threat posed by the neo-fascist Kast, already materialised in the governments of Trump, Bolsonaro, and Orbán, was perceived very clearly by the feminist movement and the LGBTQI + communities, which although having some illusions in Boric, were the sectors that were most quickly galvanised to work for his second-round victory. Some initial analyses already point to the tremendous importance of the female and young vote in that triumph.
From the revolt to the counter-revolt
How did we get to this risky scenario? There are no simple answers, although there are some obvious elements. Like other countries in the region and the world, Chile is going through a long period of polarised politicisation, which is based on social and political instability caused by multiple ecological, economic and social crises. The neoliberal administration of the transition to democracy was stable during a cycle of economic growth between the 1990s and the end of the 2000s. But with the price of raw materials falling towards 2009, that certainty is diluted for the popular sectors, which begin to see how their lives are relentlessly precarious. Chile is a country without guaranteed and universal access to health, pensions, education and housing, where the scope of reproduction of life is privatised, either in the hands of private companies or simply carried on the shoulders of girls in particular, young people and women who are responsible for care within the sphere of the private family. Within this framework, changes in macroeconomic conditions are felt very quickly in the daily lives of the popular sectors.
This process of increasing precarity is complemented by a tremendously restricted democracy delineated by the Constitution fraudulently approved by the dictatorship in 1980. It is a regulatory framework that concentrates political power in the Executive and Congress, with no place whatsoever for the communities and territories, and that places very high requirements for change, many of them blocked by supra-majority quorums in parliament. It is an exclusive democracy, tailor-made for the large bourgeois parties, which also includes mechanisms that tend to exclude women, indigenous and independent peoples.
This explosive combination led to the revolt of 2019, in which the spark of a student insurgency against increased transportation costs inflamed a field plagued with resentment, debt and hopelessness. The revolt was a portal to the new, charged with the political violence that characterises the awakenings of the people. But it was also a shock for the ruling class, which quickly activated its authoritarian and ideological combat devices to stop this popular awakening. President Sebastián Piñera declared war on the people, bringing out the military to quell the revolt. In the media as elsewhere, a story was concocted which contrasted the destructive violence of the street with a new social pact signed within the Congress. The first moment of the revolt ended in the Agreement of 15N. There, the institutional consolidation of the anti-neoliberal challenge to the revolt began, resulting in the creation of a political space for the counter-revolution, which now organised in the campaign for the Rejection option for the Plebiscite for a New Constitution, and in the introduction of a certain tension in the popular field: in favour or against that Agreement and its institutionalisation.
After two years of revolt, it is clear that the politicisation process that Chilean society is experiencing is not simply a left-moving scenario. The participation of thousands of people in political activity occurs from the left and from the right. This does not mean that the country is simply divided into two. The popular sectors have adopted a political-social activity along feminist lines, participating in territorial assemblies to organise in defense of human rights, or to debate the contents of a new constitution or joining social and political organisations to assume active roles in the process of change. For its part, the right wing has organised its base in conservative and anti-communist counterinformation communities, in reactionary evangelical churches with a nation-wide presence, in neo-fascist shock groups that take to streets with a presence not seen since the period of the Popular Unity, either to attack the symbols of revolt or carry out intimidatory actions. The activity of the popular sectors is massive, open, self-managed, participatory and constructive, with diverse voices, while the politicisation of the right is reactionary, of small groups financed by businessmen, and with more traditional political voices. One of those voices is that of José Antonio Kast, a former militant and parliamentarian of the Catholic right, conservative, authoritarian and nationalist, turned leader of the new Republican Party, which today brings together the most sordid elements of Pinochetism and neo-fascism, and that exists outside of the right-wing coalition Chile Vamos.
Kast had already been a presidential candidate in 2017, when he performed poorly. Since then, he has consolidated himself as the voice of reaction to the re-founding aspirations of the left, aiming his darts mainly against the Communist Party and the Frente Amplio, but also against the feminist and sex-gender dissidence movements, socio-environmental and Mapuche organisations. The revolt, and in particular the 2020-2021 electoral cycle, gave him the opportunity to consolidate his leadership as a spokesperson for the Rejectionists and a main force for an electoral alternative for sectors of the counter-revolt. The pandemic affirmed his anti-scientific and anti-globalist position, although in a more underhanded way than other far-right leaderships in the world.
These conjunctural opportunities, along with the weakness of the candidacies of Chile Vamos, put Kast at the head of the right’s electoral wager for these presidential elections. So how do we get to this?The multiple crises of capitalism in Chile have not only given rise to a transformative, anti-neoliberal, feminist and plurinational alternative, but also opened a door to the monsters of Pinochetism and authoritarianism, which offer a heavy-handed anti-migrant alternative, nostalgia for the patriarchal discipline of the dictatorship and presumed economic certainty for big business.
The two poles of the transformative camp: Boric and the constituent process
In this rearticulation of the political landscape in Chile, where the traditional forces of the right and the centre-left have shown their full exhaustion and lack of a project, a space for transformation has been opened, in which two sectors coexist: on the one hand, Boric and the Apruebo Dignidad [Approve Dignity] coalition (which includes the Broad Front and the Communist Party), and on the other the forces of social movements and indigenous peoples that achieved an unprecedented space around the lists of Constituent Social Movements, the List of the People and constituents of Native Peoples in the Constitutional Convention. It is a coexistence that is not without tension, but which at least discusses the common ground of aspirations for structural change to the 1980 regime.
While Boric reaches the heterogeneous mass support that I outlined at the beginning, the popular constituent sector has its strength in the fact that the fight for a new Constitution is at the centre of the current Chilean political cycle. The recent elections are an indicator of this phenomenon, insofar as each time the constituent process has been at stake, participation has been high and has leaned mainly towards the transformative pole. This occurred with the vote in the plebiscite, with 80% for Approval, in the conventional elections, where openly anti-neoliberal forces obtained the majority of the Constitutional Convention, and in the second presidential round, where there was an imminentthreat of a Kast government that would destroy advances in rights and block the constituent movement opened by the revolt. This was not the case with the parliamentary election, where none of the same democratic guarantees for the participation of independents, social activists and indigenous peoples were given. It is possible to affirm today that the popular sectors, the main guarantors of the constituent process, choose their electoral battles wisely within the framework of a restricted democracy.
A Boric government presents a favourable scenario for the constituent process, which will give prominence to the popular constituent forces that maintain their political independence from the government whilst sharing some key programmatic aspects. What is at stake for the popular forces inside and outside the Convention is to seize the opportunity of a favourable government to unleash the full potential of the constituent process and open a long cycle of structural transformations in the economic model, the political system and the guarantee of social rights.
For its part, the main challenge that the Boric government will face is to manage the impasse represented by a worsening economic crisis and a Congress without clear majorities. In this difficult but not unprecedented context, Boric has the opportunity of not being a new Concertación government. The success of his government clearly depends on fulfilling the promise of change to the people who celebrated in the streets Sunday night, not to the new mandarins who, waiting for his mistakes to emerge, sharpen their teeth saying that they could have done better.
In the short term, we will see the reorganisation of the right: the parties of Chile Vamos and the Republican Party will seek to capitalise on the vote, contesting for leadership of the sector. Being in the minority in the Constitutional Convention, they will seek to give the maximum possible power to their bloc in Congress and will continue to insist on their story that in this election "the moderate Boric won", as a way of pressuring him towards the centre. We will also see the old and exhausted Concertación making its way into the Boric government with a mixture of false adulation and underhanded threats. They will offer themselves as a guarantee of governability but will continue to be the penultimate trench of the Transition. With Boric’s well-known history of conciliation and agreements at crucial moments as a precedent, they will share with the right the task of tempting Boric towards the centre.
The first challenge facing Boric and Apruebo Dignidad will be to determine if they will take advantage of electoral victory to affirm their programme of structural reforms, or if the fear of being rejected by the transitional duopoly will cause them to moderate and move away from the social base that gave them the victory that they could not achieve by themselves in the first round.
New Tasks for the Anticapitalist Left
Contrary to the thesis that the Boric government can only be a moderate and conciliatory government, the electoral results show that there exists a people willing to defend the constituent process with all their creativity and their desire to break with the current regime. The story of moderation planted by the right, which will find an echo in the liberal sectors of Apruebo Dignidad, seeks to convey a disciplinary message: it is better to keep the radical left and social movements silent, lest they end up being responsible for a new defeat or even worse, for a new coup d'état. We are called to let Boric do his thing, without criticism that exposes him to opposition.
But the emphasis on the effective implementation of the programme is not, as some might believe, an obstacle to the realisation of transformations, but is its best guarantee. These transformations will only be possible if they have the support of a broad coalition of social and political movements that insist on the nonnegotiable aspects of the programme, the unacceptability of repression and the urgency of overcoming right now the "as-far-as-is-possible” script of transitional change. Faced with a government susceptible to popular pressure, maintaining the political independence of social movements and the anti-capitalist left with respect to the government will be key, as will be their willingness to support progress as well as criticise setbacks, so as not to become entangled in the ever-present but empty temptation of having power in the palace corridors in exchange for abandoning the broader horizon of transformation.
What are those essential programmatic points? In the immediate term, a tax reform that contains the economic crisis in working class households through the cancellation of educational debt and the introduction of a universal emergency income. In the medium term, the reduction of working hours, a new pension system without AFPs [Administradoras de Fondos de Pensiones, the privatised pension system], a universal health fund and a national health care system, in addition to modifying the conditions for union collective bargaining and guaranteeing the right to strike. In the long-term we need to lay the foundations for an ecological transition where the re-nationalisation of raw materials is complemented by a reorientation of the productive matrix towards solidarity and regional integration.
Along with this, the new government will have to respond to two urgent demands from sectors that are not from its coalition, but which did support it in the second round. These are the freedom of political prisoners both those of the Mapuche people and those incarcerated during the revolt and the right to free, legal, safe abortion on demand. Both demands are part of parliamentary initiatives that have been blocked by the right and the centre-left. The Boric government has a historical responsibility to deal with the systematic human rights violations of the past and present, and to establish a framework of sexual freedom and reproductive justice that represent clear advances for the feminist movement and LGBTQI + communities.
It becomes an unavoidable necessity, then, that the various political and social forces inside and outside the Constitutional Convention forge an alliance that unites the movements that have sustained the feminist, student, national and union mobilisations of the last decades. The myriad radical left should be integrated into mass activity so that its militant potential, which has contributed so much to those same social movements, can serve not only small groups, but is converted to the political capacity of the people.
This popular alliance will have a difficult task: to confront the new radicalised right and its desire for anti-popular revenge. That confrontation will take place on the streets and build on lessons of self-defense acquired over many decades, most recently during the revolt. But the most lasting way to stop the extreme right is to win over its potential popular base to a project of anti-capitalist and feminist transformation, something which can be achieved by conquering better living and fighting conditions, closing off the path to a conservative solution to the crisis. Fascism is also fought on the terrain of the daily life of the plurinational working class of Chile.
But above all, a political and social confluence like that has the opportunity to become the force that gives nation-wide support to the drafting and approval of the new Constitution in the exit plebiscite in 2022, and that can correct the vacillations of the new government at crucial moments in the achievement of its programme. With a blocked Congress, without a clear majority, in those moments it is popular mobilisations, like those of last Sunday that can tip the balance. The political independence and the programmatic orientation of this mobilisation will be the key to this new cycle.
21 December 2021
Pablo Abufom is a militant in Solidaridad and editor of Posiciones Magazine
Translated by David Fagan from viento sur for fourth.international