Chile’s Private Bus Companies Tried to Repress the Working-Class Vote. It Backfired.
On election day in Chile, private bus companies refused to transport working-class voters to polls to help the right-wing candidate. The Left and unions rapidly organized to counteract the boycott — and socialist candidate Gabriel Boric emerged victorious.
On December 19, 2021, the day of the Chilean presidential election, rumors circulated of a corporate boycott intended to sway the election in favor of the right-wing candidate. As the day wore on, they were confirmed: private bus companies had cut service to working-class neighborhoods in Santiago and other cities, preventing potential left-wing voters from reaching the polls. Thousands of people were left waiting at bus stops, while photographs emerged showing of hundreds of buses idling at company garages. To vote in Santiago, people would have to trudge long distances in nearly 100 degree Fahrenheit heat.
The final round of the Chilean presidential elections was not merely about who would occupy the presidential office. It was about the fate of the constitutional reform process that began following the mass uprising in 2019, kicking off a political revolution that threatened to end neoliberalism in Chile. The constitutional process was years in the making, and now its forward momentum was threatened by buses that refused to budge.
The two candidates, José Antonio Kast and Gabriel Boric, represented opposing views on the process. Kast — a supporter of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship and representative of a far-right, radicalized version of the government of outgoing president and billionaire Sebastián Piñera — declared his opposition to the constitutional rewrite, while the socialist Boric firmly supported it. If the ultraright candidate won, the executive power would be a fierce enemy of the constitutional process, while if the left-wing candidate won, the executive power would become an ally.
Since the coup against Salvador Allende’s socialist government in 1973, Chile has been a laboratory for neoliberal policies, chief among them privatization and austerity. Transportation has been no exception, with private bus companies assuming responsibility for transporting large areas of the country. As these companies blatantly boycotted the December 19 election, many Chileans hypothesized that Piñera’s government was colluding with them to prevent pro-Boric voters from reaching the polls and to improve Kast’s chances of victory.
Proponents of the constitutional process responded quickly. Before them was a real chance to rewrite the 1980 document that enshrined neoliberalism in Chile, and they refused to lose it due to the boycott. Through WhatsApp groups, social media campaigns, and word-of-mouth chains, activists organized rides to the polls in the metropolitan areas of Santiago, Valparaíso, Concepción, and Antofagasta. Left-wing mayors from neighboring cities sent buses to the affected areas to counter the effects of the boycott.
While the private bus boycott was taking place, only public transport was guaranteeing full services. In Santiago, the Metro was transporting thousands of people without inconveniences, fare-free. So was the Regional Metro in Valparaíso and the Biotren in Concepción. Public transit workers and their unions were vocal in their opposition to the boycott. The union representing Metro workers in Santiago put it plainly: “We will not let them steal the election.”
Unions representing public transit workers took the opportunity to highlight the political problems with leaving public transport in the hands of private operators. The dispute over public transport on election day, they asserted, confirmed the thesis of the left-wing candidate himself: to democratize society, the state needs to be the main guarantor of social rights that were confiscated by the neoliberal constitution.
Thanks to both the rapid response of organizers and the reliable service provided by remaining public transportation systems, many of those who were left behind by private bus companies were able to make it to the polls — and Boric won a landslide victory over Kast. Even with a shortage of buses, Boric supporters, public transport workers, unions, and social movements mobilized against the boycott and won the election, with over a million new voters concentrated in working-class areas.
The dispute over public transportation on election day stood as both a manifestation and a symbol of the larger conflict between the neoliberal model and an alternative that promotes social rights and holds a central role for the public sector as a guarantor of democracy.
It was not only Boric who won that day, but the constitutional process itself. The victory opens the possibility of conceiving of social rights like transport as services guaranteed by the state, rather than as a set of goods at the mercy of private corporations.