The Chilean Left Must Seize Its Historic Opportunity

Far-right candidate José Antonio Kast’s upset victory in the first round of Chile’s elections has led to claims that the country’s “left turn” has run its course. Leftist candidate Gabriel Boric needs to show that narrative is false by rallying the vast majority to his side.

Chilean presidential candidate Gabriel Boric, from the Apruebo Dignidad party, speaks to supporters during a rally on December 5 in Talcahuano, Chile. (GUILLERMO SALGADO/AFP via Getty Images)

Even as the votes were still being tallied for Chile’s first-round presidential election, the mood on the Left was a mixture of confusion, apprehension, and, as the results were confirmed, dismay. Not only had they not swept the contest as predicted; their candidate Gabriel Boric took second place behind far-right outsider politician José Antonio Kast.

The Left could be forgiven for thinking it was swimming with the currents of history. The November 21 general elections took place, after all, with memory still fresh of the country’s massive 2019 popular revolt, basking in the glow of the overwhelming 2020 “Apruebo” vote in favor of the Constituent Assembly, and, most recently, following the election of a left-majority Constitutional Convention, composed of social movement leaders, environmentalists, feminists, and indigenous and left-wing militants.

How, then, was it possible that an ultra-reactionary like Kast — a man who, at least rhetorically, positions himself to the right of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet — emerged as the first-round winner and could even, by some initial counts, have one foot in the presidential office?

While confusion still reigned on the Left, establishment analysts were quick off the mark to pronounce the “death of octubrismo” — in reference to 2019’s street revolts — and announce the beginning of a Thermidorian period in Chile. But caution should be exercised here: Chile’s elections reveal a much more complex picture than a simple pendular swing from left-wing resurgence to right-wing reaction.

Instead, the November 21 elections revealed a political scenario that has proven much more complex than many on the Chilean left acknowledged. Just as important, elections showed that, after a half a century of state-sponsored neoliberalism, the majority of Chileans have grown to feel a profound sense of antipathy toward the Chilean political system.

Despite what could be considered an increasing level of politicization among Chilean society, typified by the enormous mobilizations of the last two years and the election of a left-led constituent process, there remains a huge disconnect between the Chilean people and institutional party politics — the Left included.

The most salient statistic was the 53 percent of voters who abstained on election day — a figure that, in fact, has been a constant in Chile since voluntary suffrage was first implemented in 2012 (and a trend the 2019 revolt did little to reverse). Also worth recalling is that while the 2020 plebiscite for a new constitution did triumph with 80 percent voting in favor, only 51 percent of the electorate actually voted — and that percentage was considered a milestone for voter turnout.

In other words, the fact that the majority of the Chilean electorate did not vote in last month’s first-round elections is reason to exercise caution before making hasty generalizations: neither the Left nor the Right — so far — has won the support of any large social majority.

This is not to say that the results were not incredibly worrisome: the ultra-reactionary Kast, leader of the Partido Republicano, won with 27.9 percent of the vote. Boric, representative of the Apruebo Dignidad coalition, took second place with 25.8 percent. Boric and Kast will compete in the second-round elections on December 19.

Voter Disaffection and Setbacks in Congress

Among those who failed to make the second round was Franco Parisi of the recently founded Partido de la Gente. Parisi’s populist and overtly anti-political platform won him a shocking third place in the elections with 12.8 percent — all while running his campaign from the United States. Sebastián Sichel, a right-wing candidate for the President Sebastián Piñera–backed ruling coalition Chile Podemos Más, performed similarly. Yasna Provoste of the Partido Demócrata Cristiano came in fifth place with 11.6 percent the vote, confirming the steady decline of what had once been the stalwart party of the Chilean democratic transition. Marco Enríquez-Ominami, former socialist militant and founder of the Partido Progresista, took 7.6 percent. Eduardo Artés, representing a more orthodox, Stalinist left, won a meager 1.5 percent.

Apart from widespread voter abstention and the strong performance of the ultraright, the other salient outcome of the election was the spectacular collapse of the political center: the traditional right and the center-left Concertación crashed out in fourth and fifth place, respectively. Never in Chile’s thirty years of democratic government (managed, in true technocratic fashion, by alternating center-right and center-left parties) has the political establishment seen itself wounded so mortally.

The election results were in part consistent with the earlier vote for convention representatives to draft the country’s new constitution, where centrist sectors suffered crushing defeats at the hands of independents, activists, and the Left. Different from the constitutional convention election, however, the major beneficiary of the anti-elite and anti-traditional party vote was Franco Parisi, an anti-political figure who has never held public office and presents himself as the champion for common citizens against corrupt elites.

In parliamentary elections, results were equally complex and open to different interpretations. In the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house), progressive and left-wing forces won a slight majority, while in the Senate, the right wing prevailed, albeit by a slim margin.

The outcome there carries major implications for the future approval of a more radical, transformative agenda: with its current composition, Congress could prove a stumbling block for the deeper structural reforms that Boric raised on the campaign trail and that form the backbone of the Constituent Assembly.

In congressional elections, the traditional right did make up some of the ground it lost in the convention and presidential elections. Restrictive election rules — impeding new parties from forming and independent candidates from running — allowed traditional political forces to hold on to legislative power and prevent a repeat of the Constituent Assembly elections.

There was, however, one exception: the election of Fabiola Campillai to the Senate. Campillai, a working-class woman who was left blind in one eye as a result of police violence, not only won as an independent candidate but received the highest vote count of any elected senator. If nothing else, her election carries an important symbolic impact, representing as she does the translation of street protests into the halls of institutional power.

Left-Wing Strongholds and the Rising Far Right

Undoubtedly, the most alarming result of Chile’s recent election is the meteoric rise of José Antonio Kast. After two consecutive elections that delivered resounding defeats for the Right, there was reason to think that widespread politicization stemming from the 2019 revolt would also translate into the decline of Chile’s right wing. However, during that same time period, Kast’s support went from a meager 7 percent in the 2017 presidential elections to a thumping 28 percent in the most recent.

Several things should be borne in mind here, starting with the fact that, beyond the particular Chilean case, it is extremely rare for such popular advances to not be met with some form of ruling-class reaction — in the case of Chile, from neoliberal oligarchs and conservative groups. It’s also likely that a large portion of the 22 percent of the electorate that voted against the 2020 plebiscite would have supported Kast in the recent election.

Presidential candidate José Antonio Kast, who led in first in the first-round contest, looks on during a debate organized by the Chilean Business Association on December 3 in Santiago, Chile. (Sebastián Vivallo Oñate / Agencia Makro / Getty Images)

However, the ultraright has recently grown beyond its natural base, achieving support and alliances among more established governing right-wing forces, many of which — amid corruption charges against President Piñera — jumped ship in order to support Kast. That support grew significantly in the north and center-south of the country, areas affected by rising migration and by the ongoing conflict between the Chilean state and Mapuche people.

Kast also performed well in small cities, rural sectors, and among those over fifty years old — groups that tend to resist transformations to cultural values, such as feminism or the rights of sexual minorities. Kast’s almost singular emphasis on ultraconservative values — a broadly anti-immigrant, law and order, and anti-social-rights agenda — probably played well to this sector.

It cannot be emphasized enough, however, that the ultraright candidate has not consolidated support among working-class layers of Chilean society. In the Santiago metropolitan region, where half of the country’s inhabitants are concentrated, Kast won in only the three richest communes, which, not coincidentally, were also the only three that voted no in the plebiscite for the new constitution.

All the available data shows that fascism is not, as some claim, advancing aggressively among popular sectors. High abstention rates and the socioeconomic distribution of votes can dispatch that argument without much trouble.

Meanwhile, Gabriel Boric’s candidacy is supported by middle-class professional sectors and the working-class neighborhoods of Santiago and other large cities. The young deputy, only thirty-five years old, was a leading figure in Chile’s historic student movement, and his platform comes directly from what have been the major popular demands of the last decade: pension system reform, free public education, universal health insurance, a national care system, de-privatization of water, and a reduction of the working day, among others.

Boric is supported by a broad left-wing alliance that includes “old Left” parties like the Communist Party, as well as more recent formations like the Frente Amplio (Broad Front), not to mention social movements and popular organizations. Where Boric’s support was most concentrated, in the large cities and especially in the Santiago metropolitan and the Valparaíso regions, he won handily and with significant majorities in working-class neighborhoods.

However, he performed poorly in small cities, rural sectors, and the north and center-south of Chile — areas where, in issues ranging from migration to violent conflict with the Mapuche inhabitants, the Left has yet to formulate convincing policy proposals.

Betting the House on the Popular Majority

The real debate today centers around what Boric needs to do in order to secure victory on December 19. The leading proposals can be grouped roughly into issuing a call to the public to defend democracy against fascism, embracing a more moderate path and a turn to the center, or mobilizing Boric’s popular and working-class base.

The establishment and mainstream media claim that the rebellious energy of Chile’s October revolt is spent. The majority of the population, they say, wants peace and order, not social revolt.

That same reading has been embraced by certain progressive sectors — but it happens to be misguided. Although it is true that, amid successive crises, the majority of the Chilean population wants to live in peace, it has also for decades demanded major changes. The underlying causes of the popular revolt are the exact issues that Boric speaks to in his platform for structural reform.

Instead of moderation, the challenge for the Left is to show that it is capable of achieving reforms and responding to majoritarian social demands. The call to turn to the center ignores the crucial fact that the actually existing center — the Concertación — was already rejected at the polls.

Likewise, calls to mobilize society in defense of democracy and to stop the advance of fascism are also insufficient. The Brazilian case is a useful reminder of how ineffective that kind of mobilization can be when faced with a figure like Jair Bolsonaro.

Defeating the ultraright will depend, on the one hand, on mobilizing some part of the population that did not vote in the general election, especially among popular sectors in cities where Boric performed best. It will also depend on galvanizing sectors that took part in the 2019 revolt but that are not immediately recognized as part of the organized, political left.

For this to happen, Boric needs to speak directly to the material needs of the majorities, promising to enhance short-term social protection measures (decent pensions, wage increases, state support, price controls, and more) and convincingly show that the Left is capable of addressing real problems such as drug trafficking, public safety, and migration.

Likewise, Boric must deal with widespread distrust of political elites and institutional politics more generally. While some on the Chilean left are ready to surrender disaffected voters to the Right, the data actually shows that most of these voters are individuals who simply feel defrauded by neoliberalism’s promise of social mobility through meritocracy and entrepreneurship, which in turn only fuels a sense of resentment toward nonhereditary, largely fictitious “elites” of all kinds.

Finally, the Chilean left must call forth the diverse groups that have been the driving force behind the most recent cycle of political struggle, even if they do not adhere unconditionally to Boric’s program. Feminism, which has become the country’s most powerful mass movement, will be a decisive factor. Likewise, the popular, oftentimes unorganized sectors that mobilized to lead the 2019 revolt; the overwhelming majority that voted for a new constitution in 2020; the independents on the fringe of institutional politics who organized themselves into political vehicles that dislodged the Right and traditional parties from the Constitutional Convention; the movements against extractivism; the indigenous peoples; and the unions and labor movements are all fundamental parts of the social base that breathed life into the political process that, despite what the mainstream media may say, is still alive and, with the right initiative, is ready to defend the left-wing cause.

In the December 19 election, what is at stake is the possibility of extending the cycle of democratic politics that began with the 2019 revolt. But also at stake is the possibility of consolidating and giving shape to what remains a heterogeneous bloc of popular and working-class social forces, the majority of which have long been gathering in Chile. This base is now the only one that can push for further social progress at a time when Chile’s neoliberal oligarchy, seeing the masses gathering at the gates, is readying its own authoritarian response in the form of José Antonio Kast.