NATIONAL POLITICS Presidential Elections

‘La Abuela’ Rising: From the Small Screen to the Presidential Palace?

Presidential hopeful Pamela Jiles

SANTIAGO – Journalist-turned-legislator Pamela Jiles is becoming a prominent candidate for the country’s presidential elections. Her style is causing a stir within the establishment. The rise of la abuela, however, is concerning for some political commentators.

The left-leaning Humanist Party’s presidential candidate Pamela Jiles is making great strides in opinion polls, much to her opponents’ disappointment. Her irreverent persona in politics has made headlines, most particularly when she ran around Congress like anime character Naruto, after the approval of a pension withdrawal bill. Nevertheless, some analysts are critical of her “anti-establishment” motto when she herself can be considered a part of it.

Pamela Jiles and her iconic pink feather
Pamela Jiles and her iconic pink feather in 2014. Picture by La Red.

Born into an affluent family in the 1960s, Pamela Jiles studied journalism at Pontificia Universidad Católica in Santiago. The 1973 coup d’état posed a challenge for Jiles and her political views, which were the opposite of those of the military junta. Despite this, she worked for several anti-Pinochet publications in the 1980s and joined state-controlled television station TVN in 1989, at a time when the channel was still under the dictator’s command.

Her television career lasted until 2017, when she abandoned showbiz program Primer Plano to focus on her political career. It was on this show that comedian Felipe Avello coined the nickname la abuela (the grandmother) to refer to the now presidential candidate for the Frente Amplio coalition.



Political Persona

When Jiles was elected deputy for Santiago’s voting District 12, she wore an extravagant but recognizable outfit featuring feathers, her signature piece. Although within hours of the lower house’s first session to elect the chamber’s president, she screamed “everyone against Piñera,” which earned her a few claps, and fewer less welcoming words. Known for her sharp tongue, Jiles doesn’t hold back, which is what helps her popularity among Chileans.

Political scientist Javiera Arce told Chile Today she thinks it’s impossible for Jiles to go unnoticed. “She always was very media-savvy with her change from journalism to politics.” On Apr. 13, Jiles threatened to drop her presidential candidacy if the Piñera administration doesn’t stop proceedings for the third withdrawal of pension funds amid the coronavirus pandemic. The push resonated with many political commentators, some comparing her to Donald Trump’s populist façade. Regarding such incidents, Arce believes they are meticulously premeditated: “Jiles is a great communicator, and she’s gained more notoriety recently because of her stunts.” Congressperson and political analyst Pepe Auth expressed a similar view in 2019, when he told Radio Infinita that Jiles “acts upon the impact she makes.”

Her family’s credentials have also helped her gain a space in the political sphere, which is why some detractors criticize her “anti-establishment” stance. Her grandmother was lawyer and feminist activist Elena Caffarena, and her great-grandfather Blas Caffarena founded the famous local hosiery and underwear brand Caffarena.

Los Nietitos

La abuela calls her followers nietitos (little grandchildren), and as such they are active on social media to defend her from online trolls. Chileans have grown tired of the political establishment, and they are looking for alternatives. Arce believes that part of her success is due to her media presence: “her followers are people who don’t have a clear ideological position, they’re media consumers and people who can relate to her discourse.

Jiles’ Naruto performance in Congress garnered international attention.

Additionally, despite her left-wing political stand, Arce said Jiles votes with the right “in very substantial matters,” making her a bit of a wildcard to her coalition.

Her fellow coalition members have also expressed concern about her caustic style. During a recent discussion about a tax on the super-rich on Apr. 1, Jiles called the president’s undersecretary Máximo Pávez a “second-class employee,” and demanded a minister’s presence at the meeting instead. Gabriel Boric, who is also a candidate for the Frente Amplio coalition, said that there must be a minimum standard of respect for anyone who aspires to become president, and Heraldo Muñoz, from the Party for Democracy shared a similar view.

What to Expect From Pamela Jiles?

It’s hard to predict Jiles’s next move. Regarding her ultimatum about the withdrawal of pension funds, Arce said that her actions could divide the opposition, which in turn would benefit the current administration and its attempt to stop the bill. Meanwhile, Chileans will elect a new president in November 2021. Will it be Jiles?

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