By Jorge Castañeda - Chile has long been something of a bellwether in Latin America. So, when Chilean voters elected the left-wing Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old former student leader, as president on Sunday, the rest of Latin America wanted to know: What does this mean for Chile – and for us?
First, it is worth taking a closer look at the result itself. With nearly 56% of the vote, Boric won by a margin of more than ten percentage points – huge by Chilean standards. Since 1989, when democracy was restored, most presidents have secured only four- or five-point leads. And yet, the far-right runner-up, José Antonio Kast, not only won the election’s first round, but also secured a substantial 44% of the vote in the run off.
In fact, the results of the latest election mirror those of the 1988 plebiscite on whether Chile’s dictator since 1973, Augusto Pinochet, could extend his rule for another eight years. Pinochet’s supporters lost, but the country’s far right was – and remains – alive and well. Run-off elections are always polarizing, but the split among Chileans seems particularly sharp, fairly even, and remarkably durable.
But it is the implications for the Chilean and Latin American left that might be the most significant. In the first round, Boric allied with a heterogeneous group comprising the Communist Party, the so-called Broad Front (composed of left-wing parties and movements apart from the Socialist Party), and various environmental, feminist, and LGBTQ groups.
In the second round, however, Boric broadened this coalition further, adding the Socialists, the center-left Party for Democracy, the Christian Democrats, and a few other centrist organizations. So, as the Chilean political scientist Patricio Navia asks, which of the two alliances will govern, and on which platform will the Boric government stand?
Any prediction here requires us to head back to 2019, when Chileans took to the streets to protest a broad array of issues, including low wages, inadequate housing, a privatized pension system, an expensive and complex health-care system, environmental degradation, and violations of the rights of women and indigenous people. Before long, the protests were boiled down to a fight against inequality.
For many Chileans, it seemed that, despite a significant drop in poverty, the gains of the country’s economic “miracle” had not been shared equitably. And yet, the Gini coefficient – the most widely used metric of inequality, with zero indicating perfect equality, and one signifying perfect inequality – suggests that inequality in Chile had declined over the preceding 20 years, from .55 in 2000 to .51 in 2019 (despite an uptick from .48 in 2015).
In any case, Boric’s original platform addressed many of the protesters’ specific grievances. He promised to deliver universal health insurance, overhaul the pension system, raise the minimum wage, eliminate student debt, and shorten the work week. He would finance higher social expenditure by increasing government revenues – especially by taxing big companies and wealthy individuals – by 8% of GDP.
While it was not a revolutionary program, it was certainly ambitious. And much of it may align with the positions of the left-leaning constitutional assembly elected earlier this year. (The 155-member body was created after the 2019 demonstrations, with the mandate of drafting a new constitution based on the protestors’ demands.)
But Boric softened his approach in the second round, when he went from blaming the political coalition that had administered Chile’s economic miracle, the Concertación, to reaching out to its former presidents, Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet. His second-round platform was still highly reformist, including versions of many of his original promises, but less radical.
Ultimately, however, Boric owes his victory not only to his more moderate, traditional, older constituents, but also to his younger, more radical supporters. That means battle for the millennial president’s political soul may be brewing.
The tension Boric likely feels mirrors a broader phenomenon, which I examined 15 years ago. Since the turn of the century, Latin America has had two distinct political “lefts”: a moderate, democratic, globalized, modern left, and an anachronistic, statist, nationalist, and authoritarian left.
The more moderate group is exemplified by the Chilean and Uruguayan governments of the last 20 years, and the Brazilian government during President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s two terms (despite its corruption). To a lesser extent, Bolivian President Evo Morales’ first-term government and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front’s rule in El Salvador (again, despite its corruption) also fit into this category.
The radical left is exemplified by Venezuela’s late president, Hugo Chávez, and his hand-picked successor Nicolás Maduro, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, and the Castro regime in Cuba. It is tougher to categorize Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Peru’s Pedro Castillo, and Argentina’s Néstor Kirchner, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and Alberto Fernández, though they have all tended toward the doctrines and policies of the past.Top of Form
In Caracas, Havana, Mexico City, and Buenos Aires, the standard-bearers of the radical left have celebrated Chile’s election results, apparently viewing Boric as one of them. But they might end up being disappointed.
For example, it is worth highlighting events that closely preceded the first round of Chile’s election. Ortega’s re-election in a sham vote, Maduro’s landslide victories in regional elections, and the Cuban regime’s suppression of a scheduled protest forced responses from the Boric coalition’s members. While the Communist Party and others ultimately decided (after some internal disagreement) to congratulate Ortega and Maduro, and backed the Castro regime in Havana, neither Boric nor his second-round allies joined them.
Add to that Chile’s recent history, the results of the second round, and the composition of the governing coalition, and there is good reason to think that Boric might not govern like a typical Latin American left-wing populist. Instead, he might operate more like a European social democrat, akin to Felipe González, Spain’s first Socialist prime minister after that country’s return to democracy in the 1970s. For Chile’s sake – and for Latin America’s – one certainly hopes so.
(*) Jorge G. Castañeda, is a former foreign minister of Mexico, and currently professor at New York University and author of Americas Through Foreign Eyes (Oxford University Press, 2020).