NATIONAL POLITICS

No country for young men: Why Chile’s Boric failed but could still come out on top 

Things didn’t go smoothly in the first year of Gabriel Boric’s administration.Taking office as the youngest state leader in the world in March last year, Boric had to face a hostile congress and falling approval ratings, while committing unforced errors. Chile Today talked with political analyst Kenneth Bunker about Boric’s missteps and what’s needed to turn the tide. 

Since entering office about a year ago after winning a landslide in Dec. 2021 against José Antonio Kast, Chile’s President Gabriel Boric had to face many setbacks and collapsing approval ratings.

Political analyst Kenneth Bunker told Chile Today that Boric’s situation was complicated by a lack of a honeymoon, the “three to six months during which a toned-down opposition tries to contribute to the new administration, instead of fully opposing it right away. Contrary to most Latin American presidents, Boric was not granted such a period.” 

This hardline opposition rested on concerns about sweeping change. “The government led by Boric is very different from the Chilean governments before him. Many of his early ministers did not previously hold public office and had little political experience,” said Bunker.

But this deliberate choice for young ministers – many were active in the student movement with Boric – to shake up Chile’s state structures also led to unforced errors. Only few former confidantes remain in their posts. Boric has “reconstruct[ed] his government into a more traditional one,” according to Bunker. The government is now run mostly by prominent figures of the Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet administrations.

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Forced Pragmatism

Meanwhile, the initial government program has become unviable, as officials, including Boric, admitted, saying that “no government program is written in stone. It can always change according to circumstances,” local media reported.

This change of course resulted from heavy blows in September 2022 and March 8 this year. In a plebiscite on Sept. 4, 62 percent of Chileans rejected a constitutional draft and in March the Lower House voted against debating the government’s tax reform bill. Both initiatives included provisions that would have enabled introducing a wealth tax and an overhaul of the social security system, key pillars of Boric’s presidential campaign.

Un/popular leader

The unrealized aspirations and unfulfilled voters’ expectations are reflected in Boric’s approval ratings, which, according to Politico Global Tech, an advisory where Bunker works as consultant, are the lowest for any Chilean president in the first year.

The decline started in September. “The government was clumsy in throwing its full support behind the new Constitution. Months before the actual referendum, it was clear that a majority would not rally behind it,” according to Bunker.  

“He focused a lot on the symbolism of change, but forgot that tradition is important in Chile. Too much deviation from tradition is unpopular with the people,” Bunker said.

“Boric is very ideologically driven. He wants to change the old political elites, and wants to show that what was, does not always have to be.” But amid the change, problems that are not solved by rhetoric and symbolism – inflation, low growth, the need for military deployment in the south and north, rocketing crime – appear to fall by the wayside.

“Many Chileans feel Boric is not solving these problems for them. Over the past 12 months, he really hasn’t done much, except for running the country normally. This is reflected in his approval ratings, which are historically very low”, Bunker said.

“He hasn’t made any real steps to tackle some of the major issues, and therefore loses support from the traditional middle class. At the same time, we see that he is losing popularity among his own supporter base because he does not yet live up to his campaign promises.”

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Change of mind

As lawmaker, Boric voted against domestic military deployment but last February, he dispatched troops to the northern border to help tackle illegal immigration, which has become a major public concern. 

Yet, “even though this intervention to halt illegal immigration is exactly what many Chileans wanted and expected, Boric cannot claim it as a personal win because he is doing the thing that he has always voted against,” Bunker said. 

“Militarizing the border is the bare minimum he can do, but it doesn’t bring him more popularity. He will win over a part of the Chilean middle class, but will also lose support from his own voter base.”

Former president Sebastián Piñera deployed troops to southern La Araucanía and Biobío regions, where radical Mapuche groups, paramilitaries, drug traffickers and corrupt police created an extremely violent environment. Once Boric assumed office, he ordered the withdrawal of the troops, but backpedaled two months later, after clashes flared up. 

His administration’s first Interior Minister, Izkia Siches, was greeted with gunfire when she visited La Araucanía right after assuming office. Critics claimed Boric had underestimated the complexity of the situation.

The areas remain ungovernable without heavy military presence.

Time left

Boric may still turn the tide, according to Bunker. “Polls indicate that his approval percentage might be going up, but he is really just recovering what he lost in earlier months.” 

To come out on top at the end of his term in 2026, he’ll have to solve either “organized crime in Santiago, inflation, illegal immigration. He will need to win one of these battles,” Bunker said, adding that Boric will have to become more traditional and social democratic. “It is what people traditionally want, and what works in a country like Chile.”

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