Chile Has Entered Its Thermidorian Period

Marcelo Casals
Nicolas Allen

The far right’s victory in elections for the Constitutional Council may be the death knell for a progressive constitution in Chile. It’s also a needed wake-up call for the Chilean left.

Founder of the far-right Republican Party José Antonio Kast talks to the press about the victory of his candidates during Constitutional Council election in Santiago on May 7, 2023. (Javier Torres / AFP via Getty Images)

The Chilean far right scored a major victory in Sunday’s elections for the newly reconstituted constitutional assembly, all but extinguishing any remaining hope of a new, progressive constitution in Chile.

The results of the election for the rebranded “Constitutional Council” would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. Now in their second attempt to create a constitution, the drafting body still has a popular mandate to replace the Magna Carta imposed by the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship in 1980. However, the markedly right-wing council reflects a massive sea change in Chilean politics compared to October 2019, when the country erupted in protests against the neoliberal government of Sebastián Piñera.

The newly formed council will have fifty-one elected seats, of which twenty-three will be occupied by representatives of the far-right Republican Party, eleven from the traditional right, and only sixteen from the Left (plus one representative of indigenous peoples). In short, Sunday’s results were an electoral disaster of historic proportions for the Chilean left — the only comparable precedent being the rejection of the proposed constitution in a 2022 national plebiscite.

The victory of the far right is even more paradoxical considering their historical loyalty to the dictatorship and its “legacies.” Indeed, the Republican Party, associated with recent presidential hopeful José Antonio Kast, has always vocally opposed any changes to the existing constitution.

That being the case, the far right is now holding all the cards, and the approval of the constitution depends on their support. Even more deflating, the constitutional project is now being drafted by a technocratic “Committee of Experts,” itself appointed by a right-led National Congress.

How did Chile come to this?

Fail Worse

Unfortunately, defeat has become a running trend for the Chilean left. The failed first attempt to draft a new constitution, led by a left-dominated Constitutional Convention, was the first dose of reality. The constitutional plebiscite of September 4, 2022, will live in memory as one of the harshest electoral defeats the Chilean left has ever been dealt. On that day, amid historic turnout rates thanks to a new compulsory voting rule, a crushing majority of Chileans (61.82 percent) rejected the proposal for a progressive constitution that the convention had been preparing since July 2021.

Among advocates of the “apruebo” (approval) vote, the initial reaction was one of shock and confusion. To date, there is still no compelling explanation for an electoral disaster of such magnitude, with the proposed constitution winning a meager 38.15 percent. That number, combined with the sudden electoral growth of the far right in the recent Council election, should be setting off alarm bells.

For many leaders and intellectuals of the progressive camp, the reason for the 2022 defeat lay with a right-wing communications campaign. In that account, citizens were deceived by a “terror campaign” and “fake news” propagated in the mainstream media and social networks. The constitutional project was, they argue, derailed by the failure of the Chilean citizenry to grasp what would have been a great feminist, environmentalist, and indigenous constitution — the kind needed to remedy the evils of a constitution designed during the military dictatorship of Pinochet (1973–1990) and essentially in effect from 1990 onward. Left-wing leaders in the weeks to come may repeat the same lines, but that would be a grave mistake.

Apart from some self-criticism of convention procedures, the Chilean left has yet to carry out a politically productive self-analysis of their defeat. Now, with the far right’s surprise victory in the new council, it is more urgent than ever to reach some clarity about where things went wrong.

The Uprising

One of the hardest things to digest about the September 2022 and May 2023 defeats is that the current political phase, opened with the uprising of October 2019, should have been enormously favorable for an anti-neoliberal agenda. That month in 2019 saw massive, spontaneous social protests — the largest since the 1980s. Millions of citizens took to the streets, determined to reject the collective humiliation to which they were subjected by the conservative government of billionaire Piñera.

The spark may have been the government’s decision to increase the subway fare in the capital of Santiago, but within days of the protests, it became clear that the grievances — many and diverse though they were — were all based on the structural inequalities born of thirty years of neoliberalism.

In that sense, the “social uprising” of 2019 was the culmination of a growing wave of mobilizations that began at least as far back as the student demonstrations of 2011, joined in the following years by different social movements: against Chile’s privatized social security system; the excessive administrative centralization in the nation’s capital; the environmental depredation of transnational (and national) companies; the shortcomings of the country’s public health system; and pervasive gender inequalities combatted by feminist and youth movements, among others.

It is no coincidence that all these grievances were channeled into the demand for a new constitution. Amid protests, a conservative congress and government were ultimately forced to accept the bankruptcy of their political and economic model and initiate an unprecedented process of constitutional change, which not even the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 could stop.

For some time, the situation still seemed favorable for the Left. In October 2020, the plebiscite to ratify the beginning of the constitutional process was decided by an approval vote of 78.28 percent. Furthermore, the May 2021 vote for the Constitutional Convention elected a heterogeneous majority of independent assembly members: indigenous, feminists, and environmentalist activists, as well as intellectuals and militants of left and center-left parties. The political right, on the other hand, failed to elect a third of Convention members — the threshold that would have allowed it to exercise veto power.

Moreover, as the convention was deliberating in November and December 2021, the leftist and former student leader Gabriel Boric clinched the presidential election. That sequence seemed to imply the end of the political hegemony of the two large center-left and right-wing blocs that had dominated during the three decades of post-dictatorial government.

Chile’s Thermidor

Why, then, did the “rejection” vote triumph in September 2022? And how did the far right suddenly become the driving force in Chilean politics?

First, the COVID pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis radically altered the political landscape, modifying the priorities of large parts of the Chilean population — including part of the most mobilized participants of October 2019. The spirit of the “social uprising” was deeply connected with a strong antiestablishment sentiment, a fact reflected in the initial plebiscite of 2020 and the election of independents during the Constitutional Convention of 2021.

The 2022 presidential election was an early warning of a major shift in popular sentiment, especially since the far-right candidate Kast won first place in the first round (albeit in a context of high electoral fragmentation). Parliamentary elections did not augur well for the Left, either: not only did Kast’s ultraright and the traditional right come out stronger, so did the People’s Party (PDG), a populist, demagogic, and opportunistic group, which, despite its strong antiestablishment discourse, in practice was on the right of the political spectrum.

The COVID pandemic exposed the crumbling foundations of Chilean neoliberalism: few state-guaranteed health measures, low wages and high indebtedness, and regulations favoring capital over labor. All this resulted in high unemployment mixed with something Chileans had not experienced for decades: inflation.

At the same time, the number of undocumented Venezuelan immigrants increased rapidly, largely in response to public invitations made by the government of Piñera. The lack of state infrastructure to receive migrants and the harsh conditions of social marginalization and overcrowding — coupled with the extreme economic hardship of many Chileans — caused crime and violence to rise to levels unfamiliar by local standards.

Security, migration, and cost of living have now become priority issues for most Chilean citizens. The right-wing political opposition and media have seized on this situation to attack the government and, above all, to re-signify the memory of the “social uprising:” no longer seen as a legitimate and genuine expression of citizen unrest but as a criminal outburst.

Still dealing with problems internal to his cabinet, Boric’s government has struggled to adapt to these new circumstances. Boric supported laws that invest the police with new powers, despite the fact that the mood on the Left — especially after the police brutality during the 2019 protests — was calling out for a deep reform of the “Carabineros,” the main Chilean police institution. It remains to be seen how effective Boric’s attempt at political adaption will be, and at what cost to the loyalty of his own political base.

Worse still, none of Boric’s policies have paid dividends with the broader Chilean electorate: the far right is still profiting politically from the hardships of Chilean citizens. In fact, Kast and his Republicanos have succeeded in converting social deterioration into millions of votes, with generous funding from the most reactionary fractions of Chilean capital.

Conventional Quagmire

The constitutional project ran aground for reasons that go beyond economic and social circumstances. To date, the Chilean left has said very little about a separate issue: the ideological problems that dogged the convention’s proposals. At the center of those proposals was the idea of a “social state” and “social rights,” which included provisions to ensure gender equality, the right to a pollution-free environment, and measures for the recognition, reparation, and autonomy of indigenous peoples.

All of these are legitimate banners for the Chilean left. To dismiss them as the caprices of “identity politics” is to be out of step with the changes the Chilean left has undergone in recent decades. However, many debates at the convention revolved around simplistic understandings of Chilean history that did little to endear them to the general populace: the state and the republic, some claimed, are oppressive structures created by the ruling classes and have straitjacketed indigenous ancestral identities (now apparently free to emerge in all their purity). The nation, they continued, should be “pluralized” into a series of communities (or “peoples”) rooted in “territories,” thus questioning the constitutive unity of the country itself.

This pluralized notion of the state and the nation gave rise to a set of proposals that left a bad taste in people’s mouths: the call for separate local justice systems for indigenous peoples or the replacement of the Senate (one of the oldest in the modern world) by a chamber of regional representation.

The media cast a spotlight on these controversial aspects and amplified a number of scandals surrounding the convention with the clear objective of discrediting it and inflating the “rejection” vote in the exit plebiscite. But the full magnitude of the defeat lies elsewhere.

Many members of the convention continued to act as if the country were living in a constant state of social upheaval. Indeed, the resounding number of votes obtained in the 2020 plebiscite had convinced many that approval was all but guaranteed and that the actual contents of the constitution were almost secondary. And it was that optimism that discouraged a more comprehensive discussion about how a constitution could advance a new Chilean state and society in line with popular, working-class aspirations.

The state, the republic, the nation, and democracy are all familiar enough sites of struggle for the Chilean left. After all, Salvador Allende’s “Chilean road to socialism” was built on the idea that democracy was a conquest of the workers, the nation a community among equals, and the state an institutional apparatus that could be conquered, its class biases altered in the pursuit of socialism. The old left was first and foremost concerned with the material conditions of existence and the structural inequalities of dependent capitalism.

It is not that these concerns went missing in constitutional debates. But the simplistic and sometimes unfounded criticisms of republican egalitarianism, dear to so many social movements, had an outsized role in discussions of the state. Without the need to renounce feminist, indigenous, or environmental struggles, the Chilean left must rethink these causes as part of a comprehensive project of social change that aspires to take power and build connections with popular and working sectors.

The usual explanations offered by progressive sectors for their defeat (the role of the media, the lack of understanding of the people) betrays a worrying middle-class paternalism toward the Chilean people who, in their account, would not be virtuous enough to understand what is in their own interest. Moreover, that thinking prevents the much-needed political reflection and criticism to get out of the current political quagmire.

Fifty Years Later

The constitutional process will lumber into 2023 as the product of left defeat and a sharp conservative turn in Chilean politics and public opinion. It is a process of limited scope carefully controlled by establishment parties. Still waiting for the far right–dominated Constitutional Council to take the reins, a “Commission of Experts” appointed by Congress is formulating the contents of the constitution at a safe distance from the popular will.

For now, the Left must act as a force of real resistance to the conservative onslaught and prevent any radicalization of Chile’s thirty-year-old neoliberal state. Strange as it may sound, this could even mean organizing a rejection campaign to stop the passage of a right-backed constitution. More importantly, in order to recover from these harsh electoral blows, the Left must begin a process of introspection about its ideological deficiencies, taking inspiration in its own rich history.

In 2023, the year marking the fiftieth anniversary of the coup d’état that violently ended the democratic-socialist government of Allende and the Popular Unity, the Left would do well to remember several things: the patience and long-term vision shown by that political and social formation, built amid advances and setbacks taking place over several decades. Egalitarian structural change will not be achieved by a stroke of good fortune or by an enlightened vanguard of legislators. It will be the product of the slow accumulation of forces and the construction of a lasting hegemony rooted in the aspirations, expectations, and interests of the working majorities of Chile.

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Marcelo Casals holds a PhD in Latin American history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is an associate professor at the Universidad Finis Terrae in Chile. His latest book is Counterrevolution, Collaborationism and Protest: The Chilean Middle Class and the Military Dictatorship (FCE, 2023).

Nicolas Allen is a Jacobin contributing editor and the managing editor at Jacobin América Latina.

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