Progressives and democrats everywhere are reeling from the results of last month’s election in Chile. Up and down the narrow Andean country and far beyond, many are holding their breath in anticipation of Sunday’s runoff election results. After the first-place finish by the hard-right José Antoni Kast, many are wondering how a pro-Pinochet reactionary could beat out the new left in a society that just two years earlier exploded in a rebellion against decades of neoliberalism.
The country in which 80 percent of voters recently chose to rewrite the constitution just saw Kast, an apologist for Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship who repudiated the demands of the upheaval and campaigned against the Constituent Assembly, surpass the candidate who embodies comprehensive reforms and the fight for a new social democratic charter. Fears of a return to fascism have overtaken the hopes spawned by the rebellion and the constituent process. Has Chile flipped from an October of anti-neoliberal insurgency to a November of authoritarian pro-market continuity?
Coming on the heels of a decade-long cycle of mass protest against neoliberalism, the turnaround has stunned observers and activists. To make sense of Kast’s first-round victory, the Left must reckon with a spate of blunders that turned key fractions of the electorate in favor of reactionary solutions to the ravages of neoliberalism. A clear grasp of Chile’s abrupt reversal from mass mobilization and social democratic refoundation to reactionary counterreform also sheds light on the wider Latin American phenomenon of surging revanchism.
Still, a dose of sobriety is in order. Not all is lost in Chile. Although Kast’s surge threatens the consolidation of a new left and its pursuit of radical reform, his first-round win has not shelved Chile’s ongoing anti-neoliberal rebellion. Despite the election’s troubling results, postmortems for the country’s democratic revolution are still premature.
Kast’s breakout run edged out the other political force emerging from Chile’s transformed political circumstances — the left alliance between the Frente Amplio and the Communist Party. Both his newly minted retrograde Christian Social Front (FSC) and the Left’s Apruebo Dignidad (For Dignity coalition, or AD) rose from the ruins of the dying post-authoritarian neoliberal regime’s party system.
At the same time, both (and AD in particular) were hampered by growing disillusion with transformations underway, reflected in rock-bottom voter turnout. While these two polarized blocs are now the country’s ascendant camps, the election revealed the fluidity of the country’s ongoing partisan reconfiguration as well as the nature of the broader regime transformation underway.
It is first useful to take note of the parties in terminal decline, welcome evidence that the party system that ruled over the post-dictatorship market order has disintegrated beyond repair. The main pillar of Chile’s democratic neoliberalism, the center-left alliance controlled by the Socialist and Christian Democratic parties, took a mere 11.5 percent of ballots. The same coalition that won five of the seven elections held since the end of Pinochet’s rule — including the first four — managed only 816,000 votes. This is just over half the number it won in the first round in 2017, when its decomposition was well underway. To put the collapse in historical perspective, the center left received 3.85 million votes in the first post-transition elections and nearly 3.2 million first-round votes when Socialist Michelle Bachelet first became president in 2006. In other words, Chile’s progressive neoliberals today retain somewhere between one-fifth and one-fourth of their traditional electoral base.
It is not just the center left’s presidential tickets that are disintegrating. Its parliamentary slate was equally shredded. Whereas the coalition gained a towering majority in the lower chamber in 1989 with 3.5 million votes, this time it barely surpassed 1 million votes, winning under a quarter of the seats. The Christian Democrats’ precipitous decline deserves special mention: the party that dominated the 1990s transition, when it dominated the coalition with its own forty representatives, has been reduced to eight seats, a showing comparable to that of new fringe parties.
The center right’s performance reveals a similar decline, albeit with a paradoxical caveat. As anticipated, the coalition of Sebastián Piñera, the lame-duck president irreparably battered by the 2019 rebellion, received only 13 percent of the vote. Cognizant of its evaporated credibility, his party ran an unaffiliated bureaucrat, but the ploy fell flat. Whereas Piñera obtained just over 3 million votes in the first round in 2009, a figure that fell to around 2.5 million by 2017, Sebastián Sichel placed fourth last week with only nine hundred thousand ballots. The centrist candidate, who could not shake his establishment credentials, became a liability for Chile’s right as his polling began crashing in September. Far from buttressing his campaign, the administration’s support was an albatross.
The crumbling center right, however, pulled off an implausible achievement. Unlike the center left, whose decay is pervasive, the former Alianza, now under the cereal-box name Chile Podemos Más (Chile Can Do More), somehow stopped its parliamentary bleeding. While the coalition’s lower house representation dropped from its seventy-two seats in 2017, it held firm with fifty-three, over one-third of all seats. It fared even better in the upper chamber, taking twelve of the twenty-seven spots up for grabs and thus increasing its total from fifteen to twenty-four senators, just one shy of a majority.
Yet even as the post-authoritarian regime’s right wing has managed to lodge itself in a key power center of the state, the old order’s partisan pillars have undeniably lost their supremacy. This was the first time that the dominant coalitions failed either to win outright or to advance to runoffs.
Although the center right is in disarray, the Kast phenomenon improbably shored up its most hard-line sectors. Kast’s sudden growth is as unexpected as it is striking. Since before the great rebellion, the radical left had captured and directed anti-neoliberal discontent, crowding out right-populist options. Now Kast took 28 percent of votes after winning a mere 8 percent in the last presidential elections. Indeed, until late September, he had not managed to establish himself as a serious contender.
Last month, however, he began a rapid rise, going from the candidate of roughly 10 percent to the preferred option of a quarter of polled voters. Compared to 2017, his first-round votes expanded nearly fourfold, from 525,000 to 1,960,000. Kast’s abrupt success signifies the unanticipated installation of a Bolsonaro-type right-wing politics in a country that, not long ago, appeared to have foreclosed such reactionary paths.
Kast, who as recently as 2014 was secretary general of Independent Democratic Union (UDI), the center-right coalition’s hard-authoritarian party, founded the Partido Republicano in 2018 as a vehicle for his personal ambitions as well as for the harsh current of extreme conservatism he promotes. Steeped in hierarchical Catholicism, he formed the FSC with the Partido Conservador Cristiano (Conservative Christian Party, or PCC), a fringe outfit aiming to resurrect the most regressive strands of Chile’s long-defunct oligarchic Partido Nacional of president Arturo Alessandri (1958–1964). Though the ultra-fundamentalist PCC failed to break half of 1 percent in the constituent elections, the FSC now placed fifteen representatives, just shy of one-tenth of all delegates, in the lower house.
Besides controlling its own substantial bloc in Congress, Chile’s new conservatism is poised to assemble a parliamentary majority: combining the surviving center right now under its spell with the FSC, the hard right boasts 68 of 155 seats. It should not take much for this reactionary coalition in the making to find ten additional votes.
On the other end of the spectrum, AD’s candidate, Gabriel Boric, obtained what might otherwise have been a promising 26 percent of votes. Although less compressed than Kast’s, his rise was similarly surprising. After the new left’s primary victory in mid-July, polling numbers for Boric — a former student-movement leader and key founder of Frente Amplio — shot up from under 5 percent to somewhere between 25 and 30 percent just two weeks before the election. Combined with a relatively impressive turnout in the AD primary, which contrasted with listless participation in the center right’s primary and generalized dysfunction in the center-left candidate selection process, Boric’s polling raised seductive prospects.
Unfortunately for AD and the country’s enthused new left activists, his campaign stagnated right when Kast surged. After its early October high point, support for Boric plateaued and was then abruptly overtaken by pro-Kast preferences. The encouraging 1.75 million votes cast in the left alliance’s primary turned out to be the ceiling rather than the floor.
The new left’s stagnation can also be measured over a longer time frame. Whereas Kast virtually quadrupled his vote since 2017, the FA’s vote, even with added Communist backing, grew by a mere third. While Kast activated new voters, AD, after tapping out its progressive base, failed to reach potential voters from other parties and the alienated electorate.
Yet if AD fell short of the unrealistic expectation of a commanding first-round win, Chile’s new left unequivocally improved its overall standing. In a historic achievement, Communists elected two senators, the first time since Salvador Allende’s government that the party has broken into the upper house. The left alliance established a far stronger position in the lower chamber. If, as expected, three renegade Dignidad Ahora representatives led by Pamela Jiles, a former FA ally turned toxic prima donna, vote with AD, it will have effectively doubled its congressional stature.
Not only has the left coalition displaced the center left as the second force in parliament; its near certain gravitational pull on two Green and thirteen Socialist representatives will hand it fifty-five seats, over one-third of the total. If Kast’s rise represents the unlikely consolidation of hard-right, law-and-order populism, AD’s stagnation should be seen as the momentary stalling of the new socialist politics that helped steer Chile’s radical reform process.
A complete review of the election results must address two additional trends. They are sides of the same coin of popular disaffection that neither the cycle of rebellion nor the growth of AD has been able to curtail. On one hand was the surprise showing by absentee candidate Franco Parisi, who came in third with one-eighth of ballots cast. Barred from campaigning in Chile, Parisi is a quack academic who rejects the left-right distinction and is Chile’s closest analogue to Andrew Yang. Although he established himself as a commonsense “little guy” entrepreneurial candidate and polled respectably for months, Parisi shocked observers. Having taken over the fringe Partido de la Gente (People’s Party), he gained particular traction with his brand of do-it-yourself populism in Chile’s northern mining districts, coming away with six lower house seats.
Partido de la Gente easily surpassed another antiestablishment candidate whose perennial runs have turned him into an insider in the eyes of many Chileans: Marco Enriquez-Ominami, known as MEO. The Parisi revelation reflects the electorate’s deep alienation. It will give his voters and his new caucus a decisive swing influence, positioning Parisi as a potential kingmaker in the runoffs and beyond.
A related phenomenon was the alarming amount of voter demobilization. The same share of voters sat out this election as in the record low 2017 contest. In absolute terms, however, abstention grew from 7.65 million to nearly 8 million.
Depressed turnout appears at odds with both the country’s massive struggle for regime change and the polarization of these elections. But after the constituent elections of a year ago barely registered an uptick in voter participation, most analysts had forecasted it. Chile’s rock-bottom turnout comprises the overwhelming strand of the same voter disaffection fueling the Parisi phenomenon. Its extensiveness helps place all candidates’ performances in their proper measure.
Neither of the top contenders’ votes matched even a quarter of the part of the electorate that sat out the election. In fact, when considering all registered voters, Kast and Boric came away with scant 13 and 12 percent of their vote, respectively. This wide-angle view dispels the notion of a mighty pro-Kast electoral swell. It also renders the new left’s performance that much more disappointing; after Chile’s late 2019 generalized upheaval, AD failed to convince more than one in nine voters that the Left could deliver longed for changes.
In sum, even while Kast might have the advantage, Parisi could determine the outcome. And though Boric and AD have reshaped Chilean politics, all partisan forces, not just those in irreversible decay, are faltering.
The candidate that manages to appeal to demoralized working Chileans will become president. More importantly, and looking beyond this election, the Left must find a way to revive anti-neoliberal rebellion if it is to complete Chile’s democratic revolution. Unfortunately, for now, Chile’s new radicals have sapped mass insurgency, dulling workers’ and the poor’s commitment to radical change and opening the window for Kast.
Behind the Numbers
To understand Chile’s troubling election results, one must grasp how Chile’s rising new left lost the initiative to Kast’s social revanchism. The main cause of the reversal was the shift in popular perception of AD and the broader left.
Since the Constituent Assembly’s inauguration, sections of Chile’s working masses went from viewing radicals as in sync with the rebellion and its demands to feeling they were a distant force incapable of addressing people’s most pressing material concerns. Radicals’ neglect of core mass grievances and their apparent prioritizing of cultural feuds, on the one hand, and defense of senseless chaos, on the other, fueled disappointment and resentment. It not only turned many off; it had the more dangerous effect of turning pivotal segments toward reactionary solutions. Simply stated, Chile’s new left failed to campaign as the political arm of the rebellion.
That AD and the Left alienated voters in favor of Kast is even more confounding given that he is not a typical populist who campaigned on anti-elite sentiment and bread-and-butter appeals. Although Kast pitched himself as antiestablishment, he campaigned as a conservative restorationist, promising to return Chile to an era of poster-child neoliberal growth as well as traditional values of family and order. In fact, as the Panama Papers revealed, he hid millions in offshore tax havens, demonstrably belying any economic populist orientation. Even so, he catapulted into the lead.
Many on the Left claim that Kast overtook AD owing to the left coalition’s centrist shift in combination with an effective social media fearmongering campaign. Boric is said to have bled support as he moderated his proposals, adopting elements of fiscal conservatism, harder stances on immigration, and eleventh-hour tough-on-crime positions that abandoned protesters detained since the rebellion. But AD’s appeals to centrists were expected in such a polarized election, and it likely netted votes.
Leftist politics leading up to the elections disappointed working Chileans, but for the almost opposite reasons. Leftists inside and outside of AD struck many as being too radical, pointlessly out of touch with class-wide demands.
The damaging impact of insurgents’ “radicalism” is reflected in the inverse relationship between the notoriety of the Left’s moralistic anti-oppression politics and Boric’s polling numbers. Before the Constituent Assembly opened, Boric’s candidacy remained a pipe dream. But after the convention’s inauguration and his success in AD’s primaries during the first half of July, popular hopes for meaningful reforms began propelling his campaign. Within two months, his support climbed from just 6 percent to at least a quarter of voters.
Beginning around mid-August, however, the most visible section of the assembly’s left wing devolved into strident sectarianism and recrimination, repelling swaths of working-class voters. Since the worst of the radical left’s implosion, Boric began a steady decline that his campaign could not halt. By the beginning of November, reported preference for the AD candidate fell back to 20 percent, and Kast had taken the lead.
The reasons are not hard to decipher. Since the 2019 rebellion, Chileans have been unequivocal in their demands. The country erupted against poverty wages, particularly for the upward of two-fifths working in the informal sector; against a privatized retirement system that condemns most retirees to undignified old age; and against apartheid-like market health and education systems. COVID aggravated the material troubles of the low-income Chileans who make up the majority of the population. In fact, over half of all workers earned insufficient income in 2020 to keep their families above the official (and absurdly stingy) poverty line. A year into the pandemic, almost 30 percent of poor Chileans lacked work, while over three-quarters reported being unable to meet their most basic needs.
As material uncertainty worsened for the laboring masses, fear of public safety and crime also rose. Whereas a quarter of Chileans listed crime as a top concern immediately after the rebellion, by August of this year, over two-fifths did so, elevating it to the country’s number-one perceived problem.
Precisely when circumstances demanded that surging radicals take charge, their actions and rhetoric, now at center stage, increasingly lost relevance.
Since the constituent plebiscite and elections, an unmistakable popular mandate took shape: Chileans once again listed quality, free universal health care, free public education, and dignified pensions as the leading social rights for delegates to enshrine in the new charter. As important as gender equality (4.7 percent), environmental justice (4.2), indigenous (3.0) and immigrant rights (1.3) are for working Chileans, these did not figure as key priorities given the social and employment emergency at hand. It is not that workers and the poor are hostile to these other concerns; more accurately, they desire these sectional rights to be addressed within a program of universal guarantees.
The Left squandered the opportunity to press a program relentlessly showing impoverished workers that its policies focused on and aimed to resolve these core needs. As working Chileans’ material and physical insecurity deteriorated, their contempt for the political class intensified. Also in August, four-fifths insisted the economy was rigged in favor of the rich and powerful, while nearly 85 percent of respondents declared that parties and politicians dismissed ordinary people like them and that experts were oblivious to their living conditions. During the crucial months between the Constituent Assembly’s inauguration and the elections, however, mistrust of and disdain for establishment politics spread to Chile’s new left. According to some polls, only a quarter preserved any hope in the convention. Soon, early excitement for Boric and the Aprueblo Dignidad campaign began to wane.
With the pandemic raging amid inadequate public health infrastructure, unemployment reaching its highest level in decades, and women in particular squeezed out of the labor market and facing intensified dependence on strained male wage earners, radicals seemed to prioritize symbolic gestures of cultural inclusion and histrionic defenses of marginality. They pursued what landed as alien moralizing, and many became embroiled in morally questionable disputes.
Whether on the campaign trail or in the Constituent Assembly, some on the Left seemed almost oblivious to the decline of ordinary Chileans’ material and physical security. The new left’s perceived neglect of the rebellion’s universal planks disappointed poor and working Chileans demanding solutions to the inequality that precipitated the rebellion and drove a huge majority to vote for a new constitution.
Even though Boric’s platform was strong on labor rights and unionization, taxing Chile’s millionaires, guaranteed social provision, and expanded public goods, his campaign reflected the intersectional handwringing so prevalent among student radicals and mid-level professionals. When Kast’s candidacy began its ascent, AD denunciations of his retrograde misogyny, xenophobia, heteronormativity, and overall punitiveness became all-consuming. Standing firm against these dangers is ethically and strategically correct. But Chile’s new radicals failed to integrate these nonnegotiable stances into universalist platforms. Their campaign could have explained how broad programs best address more specific forms of inequality and injustice. Instead, they underscored cultural and identity inclusion at the expense of a class-wide materialist program. On this front, Apruebo Dignidad undoubtedly resembled the traditional center right and center left.
In short, the Left’s shift in tone and discourse contributed centrally to Kast’s late boost. Working Chileans had already discarded the old regime’s establishment parties; now their disillusion with the radical alternative drove the most disaffected to look elsewhere for solutions. Many considered the outsider Parisi, and still more decided to give Kast a shot.
As the center right’s candidate sank, Kast predictably picked up support. Once he emerged as the Right’s candidate, backing from those who opposed a new constitution — Chile’s hard-right, pro-dictatorship sectors — was wrapped up. His core is rooted in Chile’s small-business owners and conservative professionals. They either always preferred free-market conservatism or now, surrounded by unrest, prioritized a restoration of order to preserve their class privileges.
But Kast needed additional votes to secure a spot in the runoff. Tellingly, just three months before the elections, most Chileans still rejected his hard-line authoritarianism. In August, he scored an approval rating of just 16 percent and a huge 61 percent disapproval rating. Within a month, however, up to a quarter of Chileans predicted he would become president.
In the end, he flipped just enough frustrated voters to prevail. Ironically, the extra backing for the pro-Pinochet reactionary, a nontrivial 16 percent, came from those who only a year prior voted to bury the military’s constitution.
Kast’s law-and-order, anti-immigrant, traditional family, and the MAGA-like “return Chile to its market miracle day” promises resonated against the Left’s neglect of class-wide material concerns. His appeals swayed pockets of Chile’s popular sectors that had supported, and perhaps even participated in, the rebellion. They come from depressed provincial towns ignored by the capital’s managerial layers; from neighborhoods plagued by rapidly rising crime; and from zones with scarce employment and inadequate resources that have been strained by chaotically managed immigration. Given radicals’ failure to hammer home a program offering social and physical safety for everyone discarded by thirty years of neoliberalism, trying the candidate who loudly vowed to tackle them directly was not irrational.
This second-preference reasoning — rather than hate-filled WhatsApp messages and fake-news-driven manipulation, as some liberals and leftists have emphasized — explains Kast’s successful turnaround. Kast did prey on hysterical fears and scapegoating, but these disturbing sentiments operated along rational concerns for pressing material needs.
Fear of crime, for instance, is not a fabrication. Although Chile exhibits low homicide rates compared with most Latin American societies, murders increased by nearly 30 percent from 2019, with those committed with firearms rising over 40 percent. And working Chileans have suffered spikes in violent crime, particularly in densely populated urban centers. In the years leading up to the rebellion, aggravated robberies in the working-class township of Estación Central soared by 25 percent to 1,235 per 100,000 residents. (By comparison, 2020 robbery rates in New York City, Chicago, and Baltimore stand at roughly 150, 350, and 1000, respectively.)
A year ago, AD elected three of the seven constituents allotted to Estación Central’s district, with radical autonomists electing two more and the Right barely sneaking in with one. Now the district partially flipped, as UDI won two seats and Kast’s FSC picked up another. In what should be a left stronghold, Kast took over a quarter of votes. The reason Kast was able to exploit anti-crime hysteria is that crime is real, and Chile’s new left offered no convincing policies for addressing it. The new left’s ambivalence toward or outright neglect of working people’s security concerns lent credibility to the fallacy that the Left wantonly contributes to violence.
In the absence of reliable universal protections, anxiety around immigration similarly translated into support for Kast. As the wealthiest country in Latin America, Chile has received growing numbers of foreigners since the late 1990s. After earlier Peruvian mass migration, waves of Haitian, Colombian, and Venezuelan migrants have arrived in Chile since the early 2010s. Until recently, expanding entry rates had not fueled significant xenophobic backlash. In December 2018, even after five years of sluggish growth, two-thirds of Chileans either valued or were neutral about immigrants’ contributions; only 30 percent evaluated them negatively. But by February of this year, during the worst of the crisis, public opinion had flipped, with 60 percent reporting immigration was bad for the country. Chileans abruptly lost regard for immigrants’ well-being and increasingly demanded stricter border surveillance. Although clamping down on migrant flows into the country still ranked far below poverty and inequality, suddenly Chile ranked first among countries anxious over immigration control.
The Left always has to stand resolutely against xenophobia, of course. But concern over immigration favored Kast due to the fact that the Left failed to drive home an alternative platform of universal protections that would alleviate real economic anxieties and underscore the futility of scapegoating. Competition over jobs and social expenditures associated with growing migrant flows and encampments added to the dread of increasing precariousness for workers.
The thuggish attacks against immigrants and the burning of their few possessions two months before the election in the country’s north was reprehensible, and most Chileans condemned it. But denunciations, pledges of responsible policies, and appeals to tolerance coming from the Left and the AD campaign did not reassure workers regarding their underlying vulnerabilities, pushing some toward resentment. Indeed, residents from towns unequipped to deal with immigration complained of the Left’s remoteness. Under the false impression that Kast’s draconian message spoke to their needs, voters gave him 30 percent pluralities in the two northernmost regions.
The point here is not that the Left should stop defending immigrants, of course — it’s that the Left has to offer a substantive working-class alternative, beyond moral exhortations, to a status quo that drives some Chileans into the hands of reaction.
Beyond the Numbers
As catastrophic as the first-round results appear, they do not overturn the process of change underway in Chile. Although the Left suffered a setback, with some popular sections defecting to a program that hampers mass struggles for advancing social democracy, it was not defeated.
Accordingly, Chile’s anti-neoliberal revolution will be more prolonged and difficult than hoped. After decades of a savage market order and evisceration of radical political forces, it will take years to configure a partisan left that matches and further promotes the significant working-class capacities achieved of late. Regardless of who prevails in the runoffs, Chile’s anti-neoliberal revolution faces daunting challenges.
While predictions are risky, Boric has emerged as the front-runner. Initially, the electoral math alone appeared to give Kast an edge. Without significant expansion in turnout — adding Sichel’s and Parisi’s voters, and with some right-wing Christian Democrats added to the mix — the outcome would seem tilted in Kast’s favor. Over the past two weeks, however, a gathering alignment vowed to mobilize for Boric to ensure the defeat of Chile’s so-called neofascism. Kast’s almost anachronistic anti-communist hysteria — labelling the party that from 2013 to 2017 supported center-left neoliberals a threat to capitalist civilization — helped consolidate a formidable alliance between the fiercest defenders of market orthodoxy and staunch traditional conservatives.
But pledges from the progressive-to-center spectrum, including an eventual endorsement from independent senator Fabiola Campillai, combined with scattered right-wing liberal votes, should hand Boric a win. The latest round of polls, which have stood out for their accuracy, gave Boric up to a 10 point advantage.
For many in his campaign, Boric’s success depends on a continued opening to liberal progressives and the center. Since the first round, AD’s campaign has incessantly proclaimed the fiscal unviability of Kast’s low-tax economic blueprint and his attack on civil liberties. Following a parallel playbook, Kast renounced egregious proposals like eliminating the Women’s Ministry and condemned anti-trans rants by his party’s most contemptible parliamentarian.
Intended for short-term gain, moderation might undermine the longer-term strategies of Chile’s emerging rival blocs. The growth of Kast’s FSC, for instance, requires severe rejection of market progressivism. Similarly, Boric’s appeals to the center could become a hindrance. The surest route to AD victory, after all, involves attracting alienated working and poor sectors. Reactivating working-class Chileans who came out during the 2019 rebellion is also indispensable for the mass mobilizations needed to revive the fight for social and political refoundation.
Tomorrow’s election will be a snapshot referendum on Chile’s political revolution. It is the most immediate and visible expression of deeper struggles that will outlast the runoff. If polls are right and Kast loses, Chile’s reconfigured right will hardly go home. It will wage a relentless campaign to terminate the reform process underway. In carrying out its obstructionist mission, it will continue to reinvent itself in Kast’s mold. Given the collapse of republican neoliberalism, right-wingers will align with the country’s new reactionary populism.
Chile’s peculiar hard-line restorationism has already secured powerful positions. With a majority in the Senate cohering around it, Kast’s social revanchism will likely push even harsher forms of xenophobia and punitiveness that rely on both market and authoritarian coercion. Grasping how vital his disciplinary law-and-order planks are for galvanizing the hardening right, when pressed, Kast refused to disavow a proposal to set up black sites to detain criminals and unruly activists.
While Kast and reactionary populism is well entrenched, it is unclear how far it can expand and consolidate into a potential ruling force. Whether leading sectors of business will rally behind Kast remains to be seen. He tied up support among swaths of rural conservatives and small business owners, but nothing yet indicates that he is the preference of Chile’s captains of capital. Trucking companies lined up behind him, and particular interests fearing reforms, such as a public gas distribution system and investments in public railways, filled his campaign coffers. But these narrow sectoral concerns do not, at least for the moment, hold decisive weight.
Further, Kast faces a steep climb to attract the working masses in Chile’s main industrial and urban heartlands. For the first time in over thirty years, extreme conservatism has displaced its former centrist allies, and is consolidating as the dominant right-wing force in Chile. Gaining broad entry among workers and the poor, however, will depend on the actions of Kast’s radical AD rivals.
On the other side, a Boric victory will not translate into the adoption of his substantial social democratic program. It is nonetheless essential for a quick revitalization of anti-neoliberal insurgency. While Congress blocks his reforms, reaching the presidency and agitating alongside parliamentary allies for the rebellion’s demands should return the initiative to Chile’s new left and popular movements. With effective AD adjustments, this scenario could reconcile the partisan left’s program and mass support for the universal economic protections from which Boric’s campaign and radicals strayed.
Fortunately, the self-destruction of the Lista del Pueblo coalition degraded the autonomous currents so influential in grassroots activism just months ago. After the lessons offered by autonomists’ puerile sectarianism and fragmentation, more discipline and cohesion can be expected among Chile’s movement organizations. Much has been made of AD’s urgent need to return to the Frente Amplio’s origins in independent organizing. But at this moment, movements’ alignment with AD’s program and coordinated actions in its defense are also indispensable.
Taking a longer historical view, the Left’s costly mistakes should not obscure the significance of the Communist Party–Frente Amplio alliance. For the first time in fifty years, Chile’s popular movements can anchor themselves in a genuine socialist coalition and program on the cusp of power. The historic arrival of AD should also pull key sectors of the Socialist Party into its orbit. Former militants and cadre of Allende’s party, however diminished, can finally discard the yoke of the disintegrated center-left apparatus. The subsequent entry of both rank-and-file members and elected politicians should advance the AD-led anti-neoliberal realignment. More importantly, if AD comes into its own as the rebellion’s political arm, its consolidation should reengage working Chileans and preempt the lure of anti-solidaristic populism.
Fortunately, the first round cemented foundations for expanded working-class attachment to a radical reform project. AD established itself as the leading force in the popular townships of the capital and Valparaíso, where the country’s workers and informal poor are concentrated. Crucially, Boric resonated particularly in port cities where dockworker activity has been on the rise: on top of the commanding 35 percent he won in Valparaíso, residents of San Antonio, the country’s largest port, gave him a huge lead over Kast. And although Kast prevailed and Parisi outperformed expectations in the north, working-class constituencies in key regional mining centers backed AD.
Boric received a quarter of the vote in Antofagasta and Los Andes, sites of the Río Blanco mine and Anglo American and BHP Billiton operations, and handily took Rancagua, home to the El Teniente mega-pit. Significant support where labor militancy flourished since the late aughts heralds robust growth for the Communist Party–Frente Amplio alliance. Not only will it facilitate AD implantation in Chile’s leading labor sections; it should also act as constant pressure for the Left to prioritize class-wide reforms. And it will serve as a powerful antidote against blaming working and poor people if they feel drawn to a reinvented and reactionary right.
Ironically, the Constituent Assembly could become the most decisive institution in which revived left forces clash with the hardening right. As insurgent delegates lost their bluster and national elections eclipsed the convention’s work, the assembly descended to secondary status. Behind Kast, Chile’s new far right aims to further denigrate it, eroding its authority as the country’s highest governing body. The Right will lob volley after volley to further reduce its credibility and relevance, priming it for the final blow
With or without the presidency, Kast’s forces plan to cultivate an anti-ratification vote in the Constituent Assembly’s exit referendum. Winning a majority no vote would be right-wing restorationists’ greatest accomplishment. Kast and his followers could then embark on a return to the status quo ante, only this time in the form of an illiberal, post-dictatorship neoliberalism.
AD will have to do far more than prevent popular rejection of Chile’s new constitution, an outcome even more unthinkable a year ago than a Kast victory. Chile’s new left must find a way to once more turn the convention into the arena of struggle for radical reforms. With only a third in Congress, any hope for installing a social democratic state will be staked on its leadership in the assembly.
But to regain prominence in the convention, it will first have to lead the popular masses back into anti-neoliberal rebellion. Considering Boric’s overtures to the center left, this will be a tall task. But it stands as the best chance for left and movement insurgents to retake the initiative and defend Chile’s political revolution. If AD can direct the growing capacities of the country’s working masses and this scenario materializes, it will usher in a bizarre and unpredictable dispute. It would place Chile in a struggle across parallel and competing ruling bureaucracies. Such institutional dualism could add missing dynamism and possibilities to the conflict between sociopolitical transformation and brutal neoliberal restoration.
Historic as it is, Sunday’s election will not congeal a settled political configuration. As the people confront the pandemic’s aftermath, business elites decide which realignment best protects profits, and the old regime’s remnants shuffle between the main rival blocs, a stable resolution to Chile’s failed post-authoritarian neoliberalism remains elusive. Revived unrest will surely follow these momentous elections.
More than Sunday’s vote, class conflict during the next presidency — inside the country’s dueling institutions and outside in worksites and on the streets — will shape the balance of forces that define the country’s next era. The laboring masses enjoy more capacity to fight than they’ve held in decades. The new left alliance, whether in the presidential palace or not, must lead Chile’s ongoing political revolution and social refoundation.