The new left-wing government of Chile faces enormous challenges, and the stakes are high writes Jacobin Brasil publisher Hugo Albuquerque.
Gabriel Boric has become leader of his country after a very tough election. He is the youngest holder of the position and also the most progressive since a military coup killed President Salvador Allende in 1973. His victory raises hopes and doubts ahead of a referendum on the country’s new constitution.
Elected by the radical left-wing coalition Apruebo Dignidad, he breaks with decades of political domination by centre-left and centre-right forces, which maintained the neoliberal consensus inherited from the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990) – a military regime that came to power after a US-backed coup, having ruled Chile bloodily for decades, and instituting a highly neoliberal economy that served as a laboratory for Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, two the junta’s biggest supporters.
Boric’s victory should not have been a shock, as Chileans staged massive protests against the country’s system, resulting in a constitutional convention heavily dominated by the left. But the elections at the end of last year were incredibly competitive. Boric ran against the far-right candidate, José Antonio Kast, and had to take the race to the final run-off.
The result is that Boric will govern with a very fragmented Congress, where he will depend on the traditional center-left. This is already reflected in the cabinet of ministers that will take office together with him: despite the good news of the large number of women ministers, moderates dominate strategic areas such as the finance and foreign affairs. Therefore, both hopes and doubts surround his future administration.
The new Constitution
Boric has come to power in an unusual situation, with the country’s new constitution still having to go through a referendum. In theory, the work of the constitutional convention should end in April this year, but can be extended for another three months.
In other words, Boric’s first big test of popularity will be the passage of the constitution. It would have been contradictory for Kast, a radical rightist, to have been elected president, as he would have been confronted with a constitution whose content tends in a progressive direction.
Boric will face a period of great politicisation, against which he will have to test his popularity. This will be a lengthy process, and one difficult for voters to follow. The vote take place at a time of heightened anxiety about the country’s economic situation, which has already hit the popularity of the constituent convention.
Yet vital matters are to be voted on in the referendum. Articles of the constitution include one that ends the idea of Chile as a unitary State, starting to recognize regional autonomy and indigenous territories, as well as reform of the justice system. These are among the most significant reforms ever enacted in the country.
Until June, representatives of the constituent convention will need to vote through new articles at the pace of Olympic athletes so that in July voters can decide whether or not to support the major changes to Chilean law.
Chile is a country with a civil law tradition, like the countries of continental Europe. The new constitution of Chile appears as a single, complex law, with many sub-sections, but with necessary internal coherence. It will be the basis of all laws that will be made, and all existing laws will be valid as long as they comply with it.
If the new text is not approved, the current constitution, approved by the Pinochet regime, but amended several times, will continue to apply. This will throw the country into a legal and political limbo, which could derail Boric’s government from the start.
Slim Majority in Congress
Boric only has a slight majority in the House of Representatives and Senate when the votes of the centre-left are counted. Ironically, the new Chilean president built his political life as a harsh critic of the governments of the Consertación, the well-known coalition of centre-left to centre parties, which ruled Chile for most of the democratic period – except for the two intervals where the rightist Sebastian Pinera was president.
However, Boric is also known as a calculating and calm negotiator. He demonstrated these skills in achieving the necessary support for the second round of the presidential election, turning the tables after the defeat in the first round – which for many analysts was disappointing compared to victories to remove Pinochet’s constitution and assemble the current constituent convention.
The new cabinet of ministers seems to reflect the reality of shared power with the centre-left, with moderate names in strategic positions. This seems not only to be the result of Boric’s necessary choices, but an ideological orientation on the part of the president himself.
Most prominent among the centrist minister are of the finance minister (equivalent to the chancellor in the UK), Mario Marcel, an independent linked to Consertación, and the foreign minister Antonia Urrejola, a liberal figure who worked at the Organization of American States (OAS). There are three ministries handed over to the communists, in the Secretariat of Government, Labor and Science and Technology. But there is a lot of skepticism from the traditional Latin American left of the moderate stance of the new cabinet, and its lack of connections with the region’s anti-imperialist resistance tradition. Boric sends out sympathetic signals to left-wing leaders in the region, although he does not protest against the sanctions applied against Venezuela and Cuba, which victimize the civilian population of these countries.
Despite being the richest Latin American country, Chile has serious structural problems. The model instituted by the Pinochet dictatorship built a very unbalanced economy – under-industrialised and designed for the export of commodities. The result is a very unequal society, with low social protections, and which remains exposed to economic crisis.
The global Covid-19 pandemic has produced a considerable social disaster, further exposing a population that does not have a public health system. Pinochet’s neoliberal imposition was sustained as long as it produced economic growth, even if in a poorly distributed way. This hasn’t happened for years.
The patience of the Chilean population will not last forever. If Boric is not able to address urgent problems quickly, he risks promoting a loss of confidence in both his own government and democracy in the country.
For many, it came as a big surprise that Kast, with an openly pro-Pinochet platform, could be as competitive as he proved. Some overly optimistic analyses of Chilean politics imagine an uncomplicated progressive turn. In fact, these is a desire for rupture and a social despair that could move in different directions.
Boric is young, skilled and energetic. But some express doubts in the ideas of a leader raised through elite educational institutions, who is well connected internationally, but socially distant from the difficulties of life for the majority population of his own country.
The fact is that the most progressive government in Chile since Salvador Allende has come to power, although without the same desire to break with an unjust international order. Boric is presented by great opportunities for the peoples of Chile, Latin America and the world. But he faces great dangers as well.