A post-neoliberal Chile?

A post-neoliberal Chile?

On May 15th and 16th, municipal elections were held in Chile together with the election of the delegates who will be tasked with drafting a new Constitution of the State. The electoral process is the institutional canalization of the October 2019 protests. The results exposed a epochal shift in the country’s history. Who are the winners and who are the losers? What ends and what is being born?

Without a doubt the electoral process resulted in an electoral debacle of the right wing and the political parties of the established order that have been ruling the country since the 1973 coup d’état. Today we might be witnessing the final dismantling of Pinochetism and the two-party political system in one of the first and main neoliberal labs in the world. The political-cultural dimension of this model has had a head-on collision with the popular rebellion of October 2019, which on its part still has no model to propose as a national project. Either way, a complex social movement had been resisting and insisting and growing throw-out for decades. It seems that it has already produced a radical change, while many other developments are looming on the horizon.

Constitutional reform in the horizon

The October 2019 crisis showed (once again and in a magnified form) a people with an immense capacity for mobilization and willingness to fight. It also showed a regime of domination incapable of understanding and responding to the malaise existing in a society that has been tolerating inequality, repression, decades of free-market economics and the rule of businessmen for decades.

Literally, Chile was burning. During 2020, the institutionalized political forces advanced in a pacifying agreement and called a plebiscite to change the Constitution enacted in 1980 by the General Augusto Pinochet. October 25, 2020, 80% voted ‘yes’ and supported the change. The party of the establishment thought that, using their usual mechanisms, they would keep everything under control. The calculations went wrong.

The electoral process resulted with the “independents” (social leaders and people without party affiliation) as the bulk of the Convention with 65 seats out of a total of 155. The People’s List (Lista del Pueblo), an organization that emerged from the recent year’s social protests, brings together most of these independents (25 seats), becoming the fourth force in the Convention. They declared themselves as separate from the traditional political parties, including the Communist Party (PC) and the Broad Front (FA), with whom they were not willing to associate, but with whom they share ideological affinities.

Another independent list was the Independent for a New Constitution, which obtained 11 seats. They define themselves as non-militant center-left. Other independents that represent Social Movements obtained 6 seats. Another 5 seats are going to be occupied by independents with no national political or social articulations.

I Approve Dignity is the list made up of the progressive, center-left and leftist parties: the FA, PC, Commons, Democratic Revolution (RD), Equality Party, Social Convergence (CS), Libertarian Left, Humanist Action, Social Green Regionalist Federation (FRVS). They won 28 seats (obtaining 18% of the votes). The main winner within this alliance was the RD winning 9 seats, followed by the PC with 7, the FRVS with 5, CS also with 5, and Commons and Equality 1 for each one.

The ‘Concertation’, the ruling centrist coalition (social democrats and liberals, backbone of bipartisanship alongside right-wing parties), as the I Aprove list, received a very hard blow. The list brings together parties that make up the Constituent Unit, formed by the Party for Democracy (PPD), the Socialist Party (PS), the Radical Party (PR), the Christian Democrats (DC), the Progressive Party (PRO) and the Citizens party, together with the New Deal (Liberal Party and Independents). They obtained 16% of the votes, which represents 25 conventional members. They were preparing to get at least 45 seats.

The PS managed to detach itself from the defeat by obtaining 15 seats. Together with a group of Independents, the PS will have great arbitration capacity. For the DC, a traditional party, the result was devastating winning only 3 seats. The PR and the PRO obtained 1 member each.

The right wing / ruling bloc, united under the Let’s Go Chile list, was the big loser. The list is composed of the Independent Democratic Union (UDI) with 17 elected, National Renovation (RN) with 15, Evópoli with 5 seats, and the Republican Party, that got none. In total, they obtained 37 seats, well below what was projected. If we consider that this list (the Piñera´s candidates) concentrated 63% of the financing through legal contributions, the abyss between the political regime and the people has becomes evident.

They did not reach the third of representatives necessary to acquire the veto power. A two-thirds majority in the coming assembly must reach all decisions. The sum up of the independents and the two main opposition lists (Approve Dignity and I Approve) exceeds two thirds of the 155 seats in the Convention. The right wing lost its blocking capability, but not the possibility of achieving it. They still can negotiate especially with the parties that conform the center and center-left, and mainly, with the moderate independents, some of which have close ties to the business world or the big media, promote extractivism, or were part of the Concertation. The conservative bloc will seek to co-opt at least six of them to reach the obstructing third.

The native- indigenous peoples have 17 reserved seats (7 Mapuche; 2 Aymara and 1 for Quechua, Chango, Atacameño or Lickanantay, Diaguita, Colla, Rapanui, Kawashkar and Yagán). There will be a majority of women in the Assembly: 81 out of 155. The conventional members will have a period of nine months to revise the constitution, and could be extendable for three more months. The start of negotiations is projected for the first week of July.

What is at stake in the Constitutional Convention?

The challenge will revolve around the search for a new type of constitutional organization conducive to greater equity and a more effective participation of the people in common decisions. Popular consultation mechanisms will be promoted (e.g., referendum, revocation of the mandate).

The party of the establishment and neoliberalism will seek to resist. The moderates will defend intermediate positions, which might be compatible with the current order. At the axis of the new struggle will be the strengthening of public health and education systems, a decent pension system and the recovery of vital natural resources such as water or fish wealth, today in the hands of private consortia, in war against nature.

Also in focus is the dismantling of the repressive character embodied in the Carabineros (directly responsible for the excessive violence exercised against the citizen-protesters), and the democratization of the armed forces, including terminating the perks they enjoy. There will be a debate on the decentralization and regionalization of a unitary state. The voice of the oppressed indigenous nations will be raised, in search of a pluri-national state and territorial autonomy. Among the sensitive issues for the markets will be the debate around the autonomy of the Central Bank.

FA-PC pact, empowered

Regarding the municipal elections, the FA-PC candidates took several symbolic mayoralties that were under control of the right parties. The front obtained a total of 60 mayors. The FA won in the popular Maipú. In Viña del Mar, Rodrigo Mundaca, an environmentalist at MODATIMA ((Movement for the Defense of Water, Land and the Environment), obtained a resounding 43.71%, well above the candidate on the right (23.73%). In Ñuñoa, a wealthy municipality in the eastern zone, the FA also took over the mayor’s office. They went from 2 to 12 mayors elected. In councilors election they obtained 9.14% of the votes, winning 132 positions.

Chileans elected regional governors for the first time. The FA managed to enter to second round in 2 positions, also winning one directly. Gabriel Boric (congressman and member of the CS party) is the sector’s presidential candidate and is going throw a momentum in the career to La Moneda.

The PC won Santiago de Chile, the mayor’s office with the greatest symbolism, for the first time in history. The PC doubled its mayoralties to six. Daniel Jadue, the presidential candidate of the PC, was reelected as mayor of the city of Recoleta, with 64% of the votes. In the councilors election they got 9.23% of the votes, what represents their best electoral performance since 1990 to date. They won 157 councilors, doubling the 80 obtained in 2016.

The FA-PC maintains a cautious distance with some parties that want to join the front, for example the PPD or the PS, as they are two central parties of the neoliberal order. They seem to have decided to stay away from what their own members did in past experiences, when they were part of New Majority along with the former Concertation parties in 2013. They were functional to the support of the economic institutions inherited from the dictatorship, as during the governments of Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet (both PS militants). They allied with the ex-Concertación for the 2005 presidential electoral fight supporting Bachelet in the second round. They obtained deputies and ministers, which gave them expertise in running the state. But at the same time, their militants and leaders supported anti-popular policies and the extractivist model, and they maintained political positions against the rebel popular movement, as when they tried to appease the 2006 and 2011student rebellions, mating with the business community that sought to cool the situation.

Never in its history has the PC had a presidential candidate so close to La Moneda as now. On July 18 Jadue will compete in the primaries with Gabriel Boric. Boric presents himself as a leader of the generation of the new collective political actors that arose in the heat of the 2011 student rebellious movement. Boric has already advanced some strategic positions: after the elections he declared against president Nicolás Maduro saying that the elections in Venezuela “do not meet any standard” and that “as international reports have pointed out, human rights are violated.”

The FA and PC alliance is the political force with the best starting position towards the development of the Convention. It is a growing force that maintains positions on the left. It is a priori permeable to the influences of right-wing positions, but also to the pressures of popular movements. Looking ahead to the next presidential elections on November 21, 2021, if this trend persists in a sustained manner, the FA could achieve the arrival of its candidate to the Government Palace.

Independents and People’s List: a new, emerging force?

The People’s List deserves a separate paragraph, which in addition to emerging as a fourth force for the Convention, seeks to establish itself as a national political force. It consists of a disruptive force. A force that comes from outside the political system and openly declares that seek to transform that system radically, and now.

They are another result of the protests of the recent years and represent several of their claims and objectives. It is a very heterogeneous organization, based on assemblies coordinated by a political committee. They channel a massive rejection of the political system and the traditional parties.

They already announced that they would block all progress on the Convention until the prisoners of the 2019 revolt are released. More than 700 people have been in preventive detention for 15 months. They denounce that after the 2019 rebellion, behind closed doors, ruling parties and opponents from across the spectrum agreed to an illegitimate deal (law 21, 200) to pacify and conduct the process, limiting any possible revolutionary or subversive reform. They express a disruptive movement that at least it will maintain the pressure on the decomposition of the Chilean domination regime.

The independents also are big winners in the mayoralty’s election, obtaining 105 of the 346 communes in the country. They demand independents be allowed to participate in the lists of deputies in the year-end elections.

The former Concertation

The results for them were not as expected in any of the elections. The DC, main part of the Concertation, was the main political party since the late 1980s. Since the 2001 elections, they have not stopped losing voters. In the last presidential elections, they had their own candidate, and managed to gather just 5.88% of the electorate. Voters naturally link them to ruling elites.

Anyway, in councilors election they came first with 15.24% of the votes, obtaining 476 charges (274 for PS, 202 for PPD). Regarding the election of regional governors, they also had a regular performance, with 11 candidates installed in the second round on June 13, and another 2 who were directly elected. Altogether the ex-Concertation elected 68 mayors (22 from the PS, 17 from the PPD, 11 from the PR and 18 independents). These results keep some of the ex-Concertation alive within the political system. But as a political conglomerate, united since they faced Pinochet in the 1988 Plebiscite, sharing government power for decades, it has collapsed. Not only because of these dim results, but because all the pieces of the two-party system are falling apart.

The right and the ruling party

The right and the far-right, united under the banner of Let´s Go Chile, believed they were going to achieve the power of veto, and be able to block any hint of constitutional change. Their usual multimillion-dollar propaganda battery couldn’t help.  They lost 62 of the 147 mayors obtained in the 2016 election. The UDI candidates were elected in 32 communes, with a drop of 21 mayors compared to those obtained in 2016. With 9.9% of the votes, they went from having 391 councilors to 298. Evopolio obtained 4.84% of the votes, which implies 61 positions elected. National Renovation and independents (liberals, right-wing) obtained 12.88% of the votes, electing 376 councilors, with a loss of 70.

In governor’s election the right did not win any position in the first round. Although they have 9 candidates facing second round, two with good chances of winning.

The rule of the elites has been clearly coupled with the crisis, whereas inequality deepened (this was one of the main drivers of the October 2019 protests), poverty raised, wealth increased, whilst repression has been the government answer to the social explosion in a sustained way over time and failed. Since October 2019, 37 protesters have been killed by Carabineros, thousands have been injured and detained; there have been hundreds of sex assaults, eye mutilation (for shooting rubber pellets directly to the face). The government responded with violence.

In any case, the right still holds high shares of power. We will see attempts at re-composition, new and renewed maneuvers, fresh styles, and aesthetics in order to co-opt the rebel discourse –and the moderate discourses affected by the context. In a conservative scenario, they could turn to be once again a determining factor; only if they are able to overcome their current crisis of perception and regain at least part of the trust and confidence of the public. What we are sure of is that it will not be possible to continue governing as they have been governing.


Results in municipal elections still express something like a traditional division into three thirds. The right reached 33%, the center-left 34% and the left 24%. This, together with the economic power of the right wing and neoliberalism, may become a blockade of any process of change in the reforming Convention. Stagnation is likely to happen. From July on, we will begin to see how that process unfolds. The presidential in November will end up marking the new course. It will be hard to see a magical recovery of the party of order.

Several elements reveal the crisis of the political system, accelerated by the rebellion of October 2019. Faced with the massive and uncontrolled protest, President Piñera appeared before the country flanked by the Minister of Defense and a brigadier general dress in combat uniform and said: “We are at war against a powerful, implacable enemy, who does not respect to anything or anyone and that he is willing to use violence and crime without any limit”. On October 25, nearly two million people took the streets: it was the largest march in the country’s history. Piñera was not wrong in weighing his enemy. But the absolute lack of capacity to respond to a political and social crisis became evident. The inability of the domination regime to continue to dominate was exposed and breakups in hegemony were observed.

Abstention is a key. Voter turnout was very low. It barely reached 43%. Numbers are even lower in poor and popular territories. Voting was made voluntary in 2012. Since then, participation has not stopped falling. It went from 87% in 1989 to a record low of 36% in municipal elections in 2016. Last October, in the constitutional referendum, participation reached 50.91%. This year 1,600,000 fewer people voted than those who voted in the 2020 plebiscite.

A new political geography is beginning to be drawn. The need for social changes promoted and driven by the state could be consolidated as a watchword installed in all the actors of the institutionalized political spectrum. Probably the State will become more involved in public welfare policies –something from which the Chilean state is very far from since 1973. The political parties have had to take as part of their discourses several elements present in the massive popular demands. Even the regime and conservative forces had to talk about the installation of a model of “social and ecological market economy” (DC campaign speech), the need for “education in Chile to be of quality, whether public or private”, “pensions dignified for those who are going to retire” or the need for “access to quality health care” (RN and UDI campaign). It seems established that the problem of private pensions system (AFP) needs a public solution, that quality health and education must be universal and of a public nature, and that the ecological disaster to which the predatory model is leading must be put to an end.

Perhaps all this will start to take shape with the Constituent Convention and will develop through the institutional framework. Undoubtedly, the street mobilization process that marked the entire 21st century in the country will return. Students and youth at the forefront, together with different sectors and popular organizations that are not represented either in the constitutional assembly nor in the institutional political parties, will keep making pressure on the distribution of wealth, on the way to the implementation for new state social policies.

Piñera’s government is weakened, it has lost all maneuver capacity, and it will be limited to mere administration until the change of government occurs in November 2021.

Chile is one of the ideal types of neoliberalism installation in the world, very successful from their point of view. It managed to remain unscathed during the 21st century regional integration process led by Hugo Chávez. But also, it is the country that had Salvador Allende in government. In 1970 Chilean people inaugurated the path to socialism through the democratic way, and could only be defeated by a bloody coup. Now that same people, with their living memory and the will to fight, might be announcing the recovery of a revolutionary experience.

Facundo Escobar

Facundo Escobar is an argentinian anthropologist, journalist, researcher and  International Relations and Political History Professor at National University of La Plata (UNLP), Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


June 2024