Chile’s oldest active political party was created in 1863. At its peak, it won three consecutive presidential elections and led numerous social reforms. After fracturing started during the Cold War and continued during the dictatorship, the party is attempting to return to its roots.
The Radical Party was founded on Dec. 27, 1863. At first labeled an extremist party, its ideology of rationality, secularism and democracy became widely accepted, however.
By the early 20th century, the party won its first notable victories by creating an alliance with newly formed socialist and communist movements, culminating in 1937 when it became the leading political force, winning three presidential elections in a row.
However, the polarization of the Cold War fragmented the party and after the return to democracy it had to ally with the Social Democratic Party to survive. But now the radicals are seeking a return to their traditional ideas.
Survivors of a Coup Attempt
The creation of the 1833 Constitution stabilized the country for the first time since 1810. However, that constitution reinforced the rigid colonial structure and created an authoritarian government that allied with the Catholic Church.
The Liberal Party opposed this government but still advanced an agreement with the adversary in 1858. This infuriated the younger liberals, however. Deemed radical by the Liberal Party establishment, these members were expelled.
They saw the way forward in a violent revolution, which was led by Manuel Antonio Matta. The group settled in Copiapó with the support of Pedro León Gallo, a mining entrepreneur and politician. Within a year they recruited a small force and marched towards Santiago but were crushed by the army.
Both Matta and Gallo escaped and were exiled until given amnesty in 1862. Once back, they spread their ideas through their own newspaper, El Constituyente.
These efforts culminated in December 1863 when they hosted an electoral assembly in Copiapó and founded the Radical Party, also presenting candidates for the 1864 parliamentary elections.
Throughout the rest of the 19th century, the Radical Party gained numerous congressional seats and forged alliances with the Liberal Party after the latter’s partnership with the conservatives ended in 1871.
The Radical-Liberal alliance accomplished its key goals of reforming the 1833 Constitution and a state-Church separation. It also created lasting links with the freemasons and numerous firefighting corps.
However, when the 1891 Civil War erupted, the Radicals stuck to their ideals of limited presidential power and pledged their support to the legislative branch, which the Liberal Party interpreted as a betrayal. The victory of parliament in the war led to further reforms to the 1833 Constitution, making Chile a parliamentary republic.
Under Valentín Letelier the Radical Party became a strong advocate for workers’ rights and sided with the emergent socialist and communist movements.
This restructuring of the party’s ideology made it attractive to a rising middle class and gave it new life as several members attained important cabinet positions.
New Opportunities with a New Constitution
A military junta dissolved parliament in 1924 and a new Constitution was implemented. The 1925 Constitution retained the state-Church separation and weakened the ruling class, paving the way for more popular participation.
The Radicals saw this Constitution as an opportunity to further their goals, focused on decentralization, better public education, and industrialization.
Although the victory of Radical Party candidate Juan Esteban Montero in the 1932 presidential elections represented a major achievement, his government remained hamstrung. A member of the party’s conservative wing, he lacked the support of the left and was distrusted by conservatives from other parties. Montero was ousted in a military coup less than a year after assuming office. The coup plotters attempted to create a socialist republic but lasted only 101 days.
In 1937, the Radical Party formed the Popular Front coalition with the newly founded Communist and Socialist parties, aiming to run a strong campaign in the 1938 presidential elections.
But the Front’s candidate, Pedro Aguirre Cerda, was constantly drowned out by the rivalry between the ruling party’s candidate, Gustavo Ross, and the right-wing Carlos Ibáñez del Campo.
Yet days before the election a group of Ibáñez del Campo supporters attempted to overthrow the government, believing it would commit electoral fraud. While the group was quickly crushed, the coup attempt cost Ibáñez del Campo the election and handed Aguirre Cerda the presidency.
14 Years of Radical Presidents
An educator by profession, Aguirre Cerda’s campaign slogan was “to govern is to educate,” promising to fix public education. However, a month after he was sworn in, Chillán was hit by a devastating earthquake resulting in over 30,000 deaths.
But the government was unable to register the full extent of the damage and could hardly communicate with the affected areas. Aguirre Cerda went to Chillán the day after the earthquake along with a film crew to record the damage.
Upon his return to Santiago, he dispatched several bills to facilitate the reconstruction of earthquake-hit areas, also creating state development agency CORFO.
In the 1942 elections, Radical Party candidate Juan Antonio Ríos won largely thanks to the popularity of his predecessor. Ríos focused on economic development through CORFO, which helped create various state-run companies, including an electric utility and an oil company. He handled World War II by maintaining Chile’s neutrality until 1945, when he declared war on Japan, which unlocked US post-war aid.
But Ríos died of cancer in 1946.
Elections that same year were again won by the Radical Party candidate, Gabriel González Videla. His main focus was decentralization of economic power, resulting in the construction of factories and refineries across the country.
However, the US pressured Videla to pick sides in the Cold War. Videla then dismissed all communist and socialist cabinet members and severed Chile’s ties with the Soviet Union and its allies in 1947.
A year later Videla pushed to outlaw the Communist Party by limiting its members’ rights under the pretext of protecting democracy and public order.
But the Radical Party also governed in coalition with the communists and socialists, forcing many of Videla’s party colleagues to leave the country and the coalition to collapse. Videla tried to ally with the conservative parties without success and the party’s fall was reflected in the results of the 1952 presidential elections.
The party kept disintegrating during the Cold War. When it supported Salvador Allende in the 1969 elections, conservative members left and created the Radical Democracy Party. More members left in 1971 over concerns of Marxist influence. They created the Leftist Radical Party, which was renamed the Social Democratic Party.
When Allende was overthrown in 1973, the Radical Party practically disappeared. Various members who had participated in Allende’s government were tortured, exiled or killed. In the 1980s, however, they regrouped and joined efforts to pressure Augusto Pinochet into the 1988 plebiscite.
In the first post-dictatorship parliamentary elections in 1994, the Radical Party obtained two congressional seats, prompting an alliance with the Social Democratic Party, which created the Radical Social Democratic Party (PRSD).
This alliance lasted for nearly 20 years and included cabinet positions in the Concertación governments, which united all parties that opposed the dictatorship.
In 2019 the Radical Party caused a stir when three representatives gave President Sebastián Piñera the votes he needed to remain in office. Lawmakers tried to oust him with the constitutional accusation mechanism. The resulting rift between the party and its representatives led two of them to quit while the third was expelled.
In 2018, the Radical Party joined the Convergencia Progresista coalition, along with the Socialist Party and the Party for Democracy. The coalition parties are united in their promotion of social democratic economics and support for social progressivism.
In the 2021 presidential election, Carlos Maldonado will run as the Radical Party candidate. A lifelong member, he has vowed to adhere to the party’s traditional ideas.