By Andrés Velasco
In October 2022, Chileans elected a far-left constitutional convention that produced a text so bizarrely radical that nearly two-thirds of voters rejected it. Now Chileans have elected a new Constitutional Council and put a far-right party in the driver’s seat.
In May 2021, Chileans elected a constitutional convention where the far left reigned supreme and the right had fewer than the one-third of the seats required to block controversial provisions. That convention produced a text so radical that nearly two-thirds of voters rejected it in a referendum. Now Chileans have elected a new Constitutional Council, but this time they put a far-right party in the driver’s seat, with the left controlling fewer than one-third of the votes.
What is going on? Have Chile’s famous cabernets and carménères gone to voters’ heads?
Global and regional trends are part of the answer. From Donald Trump in the United States to Narendra Modi in India, and from Viktor Orbán in Hungary to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, right-wing populists with more-or-less overt authoritarian leanings have won big in many recent elections. Latin America, never a region to shun global fads, has caught on.
Jair Bolsonaro showed the way by winning 2018’s Brazilian presidential election. El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele declared war on drugs and gangs, shoved aside the checks and balances of what used to be a democracy, locked up 2% of the adult population – and became hugely popular. In Argentina, Javier Milei, a populist who preaches a peculiar mixture of libertarian and hard-right ideas, looks like the candidate to beat in October’s presidential election.
Global media have obsessed over Latin America’s so-called pink tide of leftist governments. Perhaps they should begin obsessing over a brown tide of Bukele wannabes who talk tough on crime and think due process and constitutional guarantees are for wimps.
Chileans like to believe that our country is different from others in the region, and in many ways it is. Our football is mediocre, and our Spanish is difficult for other native speakers to understand; we are also fiscally prudent and, if you believe The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2022 Democracy Index, we remain, along with Uruguay and Costa Rica, among the most democratic countries in Latin America.
Even our far-left leaders are different. While pink-tide presidents still claim that Cuba is a democracy, Nicaraguan strongman Daniel Ortega is a freedom-fighter, and Russian President Vladimir Putin was provoked into invading Ukraine, Chile’s president, Gabriel Boric, a tattooed, 37-year-old former student leader, has minced no words in criticizing all three.
And yet, here we are: José Antonio Kast, the head of the new Republican party, which controls Chile’s constitutional assembly, is an ultra-conservative from central casting who has said kind things about former dictator Augusto Pinochet, unkind things about immigrants and gays, and, like the right-wing Catholic he is, has nine children. Having memorized all the right pages from the Trump-Erdoğan-Bolsonaro manual, Kast and his party now hold the pole position for the next parliamentary and presidential elections.
But their recent success, taking the country from far left to far right in barely two years, is not merely the result of trend-driven behavior by Chilean voters. Faddishness is less important than two other f-words: frustration and fear.
Chileans are not frustrated in the way conventional wisdom has it. After the massive street demonstrations and rioting of late 2019, an all-too-easy consensus took hold: the unrest was fueled by inequality and dislike of market economics (never mind that the Gini coefficient, a standard measure of income inequality, had been falling since 1990). Kick out the old generation of over-cautious middle-of-the-roaders, bring in a youthful new generation committed to “changing the system,” and frustration would ebb, we were told.
Boric’s generation came to power in early 2022, promising to increase taxes on the rich and redistribute the proceeds. And yet voters are angrier than ever. Barely 30% approve of his job performance, and his coalition has lost the last two elections by huge margins.
This is partly because the youngsters quickly acquired their elders’ bad habits, packing the government with unskilled, inexperienced cronies. More fundamentally, they have often come across as completely out of touch. The draft constitution they wrote could have been lifted from a post-colonial studies course in Paris or New York. But there was just one problem: it had little to do with the concerns of middle-class Chileans.
That leads to the third f-word: fear. In the most recent election, nearly one-third of voters mentioned crime, drugs, and personal security as their main reason for backing a given candidate, while 47% of voters for Kast’s Republicans cited the same concerns.
Crime rates in Chile remain low compared to neighboring countries, but reports of violent robberies are up, and homicides rose by 35% in the four years to 2022. Street muggings in Santiago once involved knives; today, they can involve semi-automatic weapons. The killings of three police officers (one of them pregnant) in the month before the recent election contributed to the sense of panic.
Today, the average voter wants to hear one thing from politicians: how they will make the streets safer. On this point, the government has almost no credibility. Many of the young men and women who today are ministers or far-left members of parliament heaped praise on those who torched more than a dozen subway stations and hundreds of shops in late 2019. The emblem of the rioters, visible in T-shirts and flags, was a black dog called Matapacos (cop-killer).
The Boric administration first wanted to pass an amnesty covering most crimes committed during that period. When that proved to be infeasible (the public and a majority of parliament hated the idea), Boric tried to appease his coalition’s hardliners by selectively pardoning 12 people who had already been sentenced, as well as a man serving time for a politically motivated bank robbery in 2013. The decision ignited a political firestorm, quelled only by the resignations of the justice minister and Boric’s chief of staff.
Of course, the government did not cause Chile’s recent crime wave. That is not the point. But across South America, woe to the politician who is perceived to legitimize violence or appears soft on crime. Boric seems to have learned the lesson too late, handing the ideal gift to Kast and his brand of authoritarian-with-a-smile, socially-conservative populism.
The far left helped pave the way for the far right. Chileans will now suffer the consequences. (Project Syndicate)
(*) Andrés Velasco, a former presidential candidate and finance minister of Chile, is Dean of the School of Public Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the author of numerous books and papers on international economics and development, and has served on the faculty at Harvard, Columbia, and New York Universities.