The hand of the Chilean President, Sebastián Piñera. He was the first to vote in the Constituent's elections on the weekend of May 16, 2021. Photo: Marcelo Segura/Presidencia/Gobierno de Chile.

Chileans move away from the center and flirt with the periphery of politics

Social conflicts, an ongoing constitution, and the end of 30 years of the hegemony of the historic parties are generating the greatest period of uncertainty in the Andean country in the last half-century

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A country with excellent personal marketing (or, in this case, perhaps it would be better to say “national marketing”), Chile passed abroad (and especially to the inhabitants of the Latin American countries that do not have borders with it) the image of a predictable, sober nation, without jolts or upsets. “The image”, I emphasize.

But from 2019 Chileans began to live on an unprecedented rollercoaster. And so it has been these last two years. Days ago, the country had another stamp on the attestation of unpredictability with the results of the first round of the presidential elections. For the first time since the return of democracy, neither of the two candidates who advanced to the second round belonged to one of the two major coalitions that had run the country since 1990.

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One coalition was center-left (a light, diet, almost center-left). The other was center-right (tending more towards right-right). These groups agglutinated the immense majority of the votes of Chilean voters.

The best example was the 1999 elections when the socialist Ricardo Lagos and the conservative-right Joaquín Lavín together had 98% of the vote. In 2017, the two coalitions were not seen as all that “Brastemp” and together received almost 60% of the votes, distributed between then-candidates Alejandro Guiller and current president Sebastián Piñera. But despite this, they were still the major players in Chilean politics.

However, the first round of the elections held a few days ago showed that the two coalitions were cards out of the deck since together they only managed a meager 24% of the votes.

Neither of the two candidates, neither the opposition Yasna Provoste nor the ruling Sebastian Sichel, made it through to the second round.

Behind this loss of power and the passage of these two groups to the status of supporting actors in the theatre play of Chilean politics are the popular demonstrations of 2019.

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The fury of the people protesting was mainly directed against the government of President Piñera. But it was also against the traditional opposition parties. And by “traditional” I do not mean “traditionalists”, but rather the historic parties of center, right and left, some a century old, others more than half a century.

The sluggish reaction of the two traditional groups to the largest demonstrations in Chilean history has further eroded their respective images. This led much of society to take a closer look at figures who were on the periphery of politics. That is, Chileans were moving away from the coalitions that had always orbited around the center and towards the extremes.

These figures on the political periphery – strictly speaking – were not “outsiders”.

A person who is an “outsider” of politics is someone who is totally outside politics. This was not the case with the two figures who emerged in this first round: the leftist Gabriel Boric and the far-right Jose Antonio Kast.

Kast, far-right, from the Christian Social Front coalition, led by the Republican party, founded only 2 years ago, got 27.9 percent of the votes.

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José Antonio Kast. Photo: Twitter @joseantoniokast

Left-wing candidate Gabriel Boric, from the Social Convergence party, founded 3 years ago, from the “I Approve Dignity” coalition, got 25.8 percent of the vote. The difference between Kast and Boric was small, only 2.1 percentage points.

Gabriel Boric. Photo: Twitter @gabrielboric

Polarised elections? Not at all

So let’s debunk the buzzword of “polarised elections in this year’s Chilean presidential first round”. Not. At. All. The first-round electoral process was “fragmented” (or “atomized”, if you prefer).

It would have been “polarised” if Kast had got 48% of the vote and Boric 46%, for example. But that was not the case.

In fact, Kast, by getting his 27.9%, had the lowest proportion of votes for a first-place vote in a Chilean presidential election.

However, now, for the second round, the election will be polarized. Even more so with the verbal pyrotechnics that the two have begun to fire off. Kast, accusing Boric of being a “communist” and a “terrorist”, while Boric calls his rival a “fascist”.

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The mission of the two candidates in the short time remaining until the second part of the elections will be twofold:

1 – On the one hand, to seduce the electorate that has remained close to the center. To do so, both will need to moderate their respective speeches, something that won’t be easy.

2 – On the other hand, they’ll have to convince the vast crowds that didn’t go to vote in the first round. And this is a gigantic problem since 53% of voters didn’t show up at the polls, a proportion that constitutes the second highest abstention since the return of democracy in 1990.

It’s a paradox, but the 20 to 24-year-olds who went to the demonstrations en masse over the last two years are the group who least go to the polling centers. That is, there could be a large proportion of Boric’s potential voters. His mission will be to convince these masses of young people that demonstrating is important… but voting is even more important, as it is the only way of legally formalizing the demands for change in politics.

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On the flip side, the group that participates most in elections is the 65 to 69-year-olds. And this is a sector that feels more appreciation for Kast’s message of “order”.

The mathematics of the first round indicates that if politics were not nuanced, the right would be victorious in the next round, since the sum of all the votes from the right-wing range, passing through center-right, right-wing, and far-right, is 53.5%.

And the sum of the votes of the candidates from the left, center-left, and radical left is 46.5%. But the Latin American electorate is changeable, just like Giuseppe Verdi’s aria “la donna è mobile”, from the opera “Rigoleto”, in which he indicates that a person changes opinions and stances like a feather blown by the wind.

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In this case, the mystery is how voters of third-placed Franco Parisi, of the populist right-wing Partido de la Gente (People’s Party), will behave in the second round.

Franco Parisi. Photo: David Von Blohn/Nurphoto/Shutterstock

Parisi is a sui generis case in Latin American politics. He did the whole campaign online; he didn’t give speeches on platforms or kiss babies and he didn’t even participate in the presidential candidates’ debates. Parisi campaigned all the way from Alabama, United States, where he lives since he could not return to Chile due to the risk of being arrested by the Justice Department for a series of scandals.

However, he will go down in history for having run the first presidential campaign in history with significant results, as he obtained 13.1% of the vote.

But let’s get back to the voters of this peculiar candidate. Parisi was the candidate who had no chance at all of winning. Therefore, his voters, rather than voting for a political platform to come to power, were – via their vote – showing their displeasure with the system.

But the question is “if he is from the populist right, would all his voters go for Kast?”. Ah, good question. They are some 900,000 votes, mostly male, with a low-middle level educational background, economically lower middle class, as well as relatively young, as some 60% of these voters would be under 40 years of age.

The main characteristic of this group is their rejection of traditional politics. Therefore, they could adhere to any kind of populist offer (and shouting). That is the emotional appeal with the presentation of “easy solutions” and categorical to the country’s problems.

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A survey of this electorate by the Pulso Ciudadano consultancy indicated that of Parisi’s voters 28.4% would allocate their vote to Boric in the second round, while 26.7% would vote for Kast. And almost 45% of those who say they voted for Parisi would not vote in the second round. That is, they would not go out of their homes to vote, or would vote blank or annul.
Paradoxes of the current Chilean situation

Society went out in force to protest against the current economic and political system in force since 1990. However, a large part of society decided to vote for candidates – like Kast and Sichel – who defend the permanence of the system (one emphatically and fervently and the other in a more subtle way). However, much of society – as just explained – decided to stay at home and not vote in the first round.

Political analysts have not reached categorical conclusions about this phenomenon. These are the same Chileans who protested in 2019 and 2020 against the system and who in May elected governors and mayors throughout the country from the left and center-left (an election in which the right was sidelined except for one state). And on the same occasion, they voted in a constituent that has an overwhelming center-left majority.

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However, therein lies an interesting clue that showed the current anti-system tendency of Chileans: 70% of the electoral candidates for the Constituency were independent. This was a harbinger that the first presidential round would be very fragmented.

But the left considered that, with these positive results in the governors’ and constituents’ elections, victory in the presidential was assured.

At the same time, analysts point out that many people who even participated in the first protests in 2019 later moved away, frightened by the violence of some minorities who unleashed looting and depredation of commercial establishments and public patrimony. These sectors, which were initially sympathetic to proposals for change, now take refuge in calls for “order” and “security” from the far right.

That is, there is a huge sector of the center that wants a less (or not at all) neoliberal pension system, as it has been so far, privately. There is a desire for a greater state presence in this (which Kast does not want at all). But at the same time, these vast sectors want “order” and not the wreckage of demonstrations (which Boric has not clearly condemned).

All this indicates that if the road to the second round were a war scenario it could amount to a minefield in which the candidates will tread unknown ground.

Kast will have to moderate his speech to attract other voters. And he will have to tame his more extremist allies (yes, there are MPs more extremist than Kast). This was the case with Joahnnes Kaiser, a “Kastist” MP who resigned days after being elected due to a series of misogynistic and xenophobic public comments. Kaiser had issued comments in which he pondered that women’s right to vote should be eliminated, as well as ironizing the victims of the military regime of the dictator and general Augusto Pinochet (1973-99). “We reject any expression of the style issued by MP-elect Kaiser,” Kast said quickly, trying to extricate himself from the case, especially on the issue of women’s voting rights.

Augusto Pinochet. Photo: Everett/Shutterstock

Kast, although a declared Pinochet fan, is trying to keep the more frenzied Pinochetists in his ranks from avoiding statements that would complicate his access to the center electorate. Along with this, he tries to contain the religious fundamentalists who back him. That is, it would be like a group of fanatics that their leader gives them the message “you can remain fanatical, but try to show it less, at least until the second round is over”.

Boric, meanwhile, is moderating his speech. He no longer repeats his phrase “if Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, the country will also be its tomb”. This, on the one hand, makes this former student leader a more potable figure for the electorate of the center. However, Boric’s insistence on pleasing the center in recent days, and on attracting members of the Socialist Party (which was part of the center-left coalition that governed Chile in 23 of these 31 years of democracy) has unleashed the anger of the Communist Party, which is one of the pillars of his campaign.

The PC considers the PS to be a bourgeois party. The Communists indicate that if the Socialists have much of a presence in an eventual future Boric government, the radical left-wing will be left out.

The center-left former senator and economy minister Carlos Ominami supports Boric (Ominami is part of the group of economists on his team) but criticizes him saying that his campaign has a very ‘ñuñoína’ youthful aesthetic. This term refers to the neighborhood in the northeast of Santiago, the capital, the upper and upper-middle class Ñuñoa.

The divisions of the left are usually more visceral than the divisions of the right. This is a world classic. And this is being repeated, once again, in the south of this continent. And, to complicate matters, on the way to a second round.

If Kast is eventually elected, he will have to govern with a Senate with a tie between the totality of parliamentarians from the right and the left. In the Chamber of Deputies, the center-left will have a slight majority (if it votes 100% inline).

The Constituent Assembly

The biggest challenge will be to deal with a Constituent Assembly that is in full swing, preparing the text of the new Magna Carta, with an intense progressive tone.

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This Constituent Assembly is seriously considering a drastic reduction in presidential power. That is, the Constituent will define whether the system will continue to be hyper-presidential (as it is today since the head of the executive branch has the power to block various initiatives by Parliament), or whether it will be presidential but with less weight for the president. Or, if Chile will be governed by a parliamentary system.

In this way, it cannot be ruled out that the new president will take office with the broad powers that the current constitution gives him. And, months later, from the second half of next year, he could have his powers vastly reduced.

However, obviously, all this depends on the new Magna Carta being approved. And therein lies the new uncertainty that Chile will have to deal with next year.

The Constituent has a period of nine months to prepare the Magna Carta. But it can count on a single three-month extension. This way, it would have to complete the text by July next year at the latest. Then, it will have to be approved by two-thirds of the Constituent Assembly. And after that, it would have to pass through the sieve of a plebiscite (and this one, yes, with an obligatory vote).

How will the Chilean electorate be psychologically next year? Will they approve the new Magna Carta and thus bury the constitution in force since 1980, that of General Pinochet? Or will they vote against the new Magna Carta? If so, it will continue with the Pinochetist Magna Carta. And, consequently, it will be the backdrop for more social conflict in the coming years in Chile.

Months ago the Constituent was defined as “the last vestige of Pinochet in the lives of Chileans”. But the appearance of Kast shows that the figure of the deceased and bloodthirsty former dictator continues to hover over the daily life of this country, in the most frightening Walking Dead mode.