Surprise election result in Chile offers roadmap for polarized democracies

Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old leftist congressman, will become the youngest president in Chilean history after securing 56% of the vote in Sunday’s run-off elections against the former far-right congressman 55-year-old Jose Antonio Kast. The result surprised many observers, who expected a tighter race.

Boric now faces the challenge of unifying a country that, after decades of political stability, was left in limbo after massive protests in 2019 against political elites and discontent over growing inequalities and inadequate public services. It must develop and implement a new national vision after the majority of voters expressed a wish to move away from Chile’s free market economic model. He is also to guide the country through the period of the Constituent Assembly, which began in response to protests and is expected to last until voters approve or reject the new constitution next year.

Olivier Stuenkel

Oliver Stuenkel is Associate Professor at the School of International Relations at the Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) in São Paulo, Brazil. He is also a non-resident researcher affiliated with the Democracy, Conflict and Governance program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research focuses on Latin American and foreign policy, as well as the role of China and the United States in Latin America.

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In many ways, the political climate during the second round suggested that Chile is falling prey to the kind of destructive polarization so visible in other Western democracies. The collapse of centrist parties in the first round of the presidential election, unprecedented since Chile’s return to democracy three decades ago, has raised many concerns. Analysts across Latin America had questioned whether Chile would suffer the same fate as Brazil, which entered a spiral of extreme polarization, political instability and economic stagnation after mass protests in 2013 that took ultimately led to the rise of the right-wing, dissenting populist president. Jair Bolsonaro.

The campaign’s heated rhetoric and mutual demonization also set this presidential competition apart from Chile’s relatively tame – and, arguably, even a little boring – electoral cycles of Chile over the past decade. Kast presented the election as an election between freedom and communism, implying that the bearded and tattooed Boric would follow in Hugo Chávez’s footsteps and oversee Chile’s collapse, and it has become increasingly clear over the years. final weeks of the campaign that whoever won would face deep mistrust among those who had supported the losing candidate.

Election day, however, suggested that Chile has a chance to step back from the abyss of extreme polarization. Kast, an admirer of Pinochet’s dictatorial regime and assimilated to Bolsonaro, called out Boric to congratulate him and conceded about half an hour after the polls closed and released a very accommodating message on social networks. Boric’s victory is largely due to his ability to woo centrist voters who feel uncomfortable with him and Kast. (Even Boric’s staunchest supporter will likely agree that many of those who voted for their candidate did so because they found the alternative even more distasteful.) Moreover, an equally divided Senate prompts Boric to move on. the other side of the aisle to govern. Perhaps aware of this situation, the president-elect emphasized “change with responsibility” in his first speech on Sunday evening.

But there is a risk that those who think Chile can serve as an example of how to constructively channel popular discontent underestimate the serious risks the country continues to face, despite being classified as one of the most stable democracies in Latin America. It’s easy to overlook the trauma the 2019 protests produced in parts of the country’s electorate. At the height of the uprisings, the country had become ungovernable and saw the sacking of churches and government buildings and the closure of schools, and some areas of Santiago have not yet recovered economically from the physical destruction (not to mention the pandemic that followed).

In the second round Boric resolutely put himself at the center of economic issues and emphasized fiscal responsibility – long positioned the anathema to Chile’s left. He also supports the independence of the central bank and is advised by moderate economists, perhaps in an attempt to win the support of conservatives and small business owners. None of these proposals are revolutionary. Yet Boric may very well not find the right formula for engaging the skeptics while maintaining the support of the more radical elements of his alliance, including the Chilean Communist Party, which has controversially supported the recent mock election of Daniel Ortega. in Nicaragua.

Finding a compromise on economic issues may even be easier than on social issues such as gay rights and abortion, subjects conservatives are likely to favor. Deeply conservative until recently, Chilean society is witnessing the advent of a generation far more progressive than its parents. Boric illustrates this change: brought up in a Catholic family, he declares himself agnostic; focused on LGBTQ rights during his campaign; and plans to legalize abortion, which is widely banned in Chile. Kast, meanwhile, is an ultra-conservative Catholic and father of nine who has vowed a return to “traditional values.”

Yet Boric has shown that he does not back down from unpopular positions within his ideological camp. In November 2019, then Congressman Boric backed a deal to hold a plebiscite for a new constitution, a proposal rejected by the far left at the time. The move disappointed many of his more radical supporters, but established him as a consensus builder. His willingness to criticize Venezuela’s authoritarian regime – something even moderate left-wing leaders across Latin America are reluctant to do – is another example Boric can understand he must act as a bridge builder to move forward. Chili. This capability will be in high demand in the years to come, and observers across South America will be watching closely as the region’s richest country chart a new course.

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