OPINION Presidential Elections

Chile dodged the authoritarian bullet – but it still ricochets

With most votes counted, Gabriel Boric emerges as Chile’s president-elect. He ran on a popular left platform initially but in recent weeks focused on centrist voters. While Boric has vast potential to institutionalize change, his presidency is also the last opportunity to prevent a neo-pinochetist restoration.

Gabriel Boric’s election win is meaningful because it will at least stall the neo-pinochetist restoration his opponent promised, backed by the entire right-wing.

With luck, the Boric administration’s policies may even provide conditions to marginalize far-right tendencies. With over 90% of votes counted, Boric won around 55%, compared to 44% for the favorite of the business press and the government, José Antonio Kast. Over 8 million voted, compared to 7 million in the first round and 15 million eligible voters. The progressive Chile of the social uprising has not been defeated. It’s stronger than ever.

But the neo-pinochetist Chile, now represented by the entire right and half of Congress, still wields power and may galvanize, especially since the center-right disappeared.

Widespread reports emerged about lack of public transport in Santiago, Viña del Mar, and Temuco, among others. Most complaints came from sectors that would most likely favor Boric. This situation was unprecedented. While the transport minister denied transport problems, the government, also unprecedentedly, has faced severe allegations of sabotaging the process.

Chileans denounce lack of buses amid historic elections

Also, it is important to dismiss the alarmist clickbait major business publications like The Economist, Forbes, or Bloomberg have been churning out. Their decision to portray Boric as a radical leftist in thrall to the Communist Party is journalistically questionable. Still, their peculiar readership might have enjoyed the ride it’s been taken for – but it’s got nothing to do with reality.

The  Campaign

Boric ran a remarkable campaign. Rather than scaring potential voters into choosing him or fascism, he demonstrated why he deserved their vote. And although his slogan of hope over fear, reminiscent of Obama’s, was pushed at every turn, it did not consume the concrete proposals at hand, presented plausibly. 

His best decision was to refrain from a left-wing campaign based on identity politics, which unfortunately has become common in European countries and the US, with disastrous results. While Boric is a strong backer of minority rights, he phrased them as citizen rights like a living wage and a clean environment, or universal healthcare. Workers, students, and minority workers or students had ample reasons to vote for him. 

Over the last weeks, Boric has also placated the center and organized business. After a visit to business association CPC, which is far more powerful than some ministries, Boric emphasized that good ideas have come forth to benefit the country.

Boric promised small business owners to strictly prosecute those who are responsible for destruction in the wake of protests. He did not mention the evidence on the role undercover police has played in the destruction. Although common, such authoritarian practices have become taboos in Chile. In that vein, Boric also ruled out an amnesty for prisoners of the social uprising. A minority, it seems, remains in prison because the justice system is slow-walking their cases to enable imprisonment without trial.

On crime, Boric employed hardline rhetoric of mercilessly prosecuting ‘el narco’ and restoring public safety. Yet, narcos and gangs generally not only provide social security and an easy way to riches, highly appealing in a society trained on the virtues of competition, but they also feed on an underclass detached from common values and nurtured in the shadows of neoliberalization.

Intensifying globalization is fueling this development, among others, by enabling tax evasion and avoidance, depriving the state of funds to tackle crime. Drug use, moreover, is glorified, and in highly competitive work and study environments even perceived as necessity. Boric, a former student leader, didn’t focus on these socio-political roots of crime, keeping the doors open for law and order rhetoric, which white-collar criminals often employ.

Also important will be his support for the new Constitution, currently drafted by a constitutional convention and put to plebiscite during the next government term. To garner support for the new Magna Carta, the Boric government hopefully responds as aptly to the certain right-wing fear campaign as it did to attacks on its presidential campaign.

Impossible Government?

Daily reports about shootouts and assaults on bus passengers or shoppers, even in broad daylight, have become common and will continue and continue to be exploited by the opposition. This will pressure Boric to resort to short-term but failed policies like the presidents before him. Of course, this approach would set him up for failure, while it enables authoritarian measures in the name of fighting crime.

Also, staring into the neo-pinochetist abyss, the center-left has aligned with Boric. While that massively helped his campaign, it could hurt his government. The old guard has installed key players near the new power center, even though its policies have been soundly rejected by the electorate. The center-left candidate finished fifth in the first round, beaten by the center-right candidate and a YouTuber who hasn’t been in Chile for years .

But the center-left influence will stall changes to the political-economic framework, despite all the change-y talk. This influence, the political elite’s enthusiastic and open-ended push into a US-led neoliberal global economy, and the embrace of Chinese capital constitute pillars of a firewall that protects the local political economy from democracy, or uncertainty, as investors call it. Boric could end up as yet another guy who tried but failed as he accepted so-called responsible statecraft.

Protests, and with them state violence, will also continue, no matter who is in power. This development will cost Boric support in big cities where citizens and small business owners are tired of having to give way to protests every weekend. It will also cost him support among the protesting urban youth subject to police brutality, supposed to be reformed away.

One of the most urgent tasks to manifest his power is therefore facilitating dialogue between protest collectives, Carabineros, and small businesses. It will not be enough to juggle these groups’ interests; Boric needs to engage them.  

Monumental Challenge

Former president Ricardo Lagos suggested the election winner should seek dialogue with the opposing faction. He spoke from experience, as the 1990s left also had to talk to right-wing lawmakers who approved of state terrorism and supported the dictatorship just a couple years earlier. But even much of that right-wing accepted the dictatorship became unsustainable and some compromise had to be agreed. 

In contrast, today’s right hallucinates about threats posed by ungodly communist homosexuals and fighting them off would be a matter of survival. Boric can’t expect constructive proposals from such zealots.

Hence, popular support is key. If it grows too assertive, however, it could clash with the center-left and even galvanize the right, which is now Kast’s right, and has far less scruples. Social advances could also induce fear in this sector, so policies should not distinguish between deserving poor and undeserving rich. Healthcare, pensions, and education must be established as universal rights for universal benefit. 

Whatever he’ll do, given the make-up of Congress and the left/center-left nature of his coalition, any give on one side will provoke a take on the other, potentially strengthening the neo-pinochetist forces. 

Will his government be able to deal with such adversity and resist the periodically arising authoritarian pull? Only the next election will show.

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