Boric’s Big Win
Gabriel Boric’s election in Chile brings the post-Pinochet era to an end
“Right populism will always beat left populism,” tweets Yascha Mounk. He is generally correct.
Over the last hundred years of political history, there is a clear pattern of the Right prevailing in very polarized systems. In the Germany of the 1930s, the National Socialists triumphed over the Communists. In the 2019 United Kingdom election, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives won a landslide victory over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Joe Biden owes his presidency, and the Democratic nomination that made it possible, to the assumption among many Democratic primary voters that Bernie Sanders stood no chance against Donald Trump in a general election. (A theory that intrigues me is that right wing populists better approximate the “id” of many voters in Western electorates.) But there is one region of the world where this is an exception: Latin America. Leftist populists have a record of doing well in the region. We can point to examples such as Argentina’s Kirchners, Brazil’s Lula, presidents in Peru and Ecuador, and Mexico’s López Obrador. (Note that we are focused on populism in democratic countries and will exclude the dictatorships in Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.)
This week, Chileans broke Mounk’s rule and elected Gabriel Boric to the presidency by a 56-44 margin in a runoff vote. He is a 35-year old former student activist, and leader of a left-wing party called Convergencia Social that is only three years old. He defeated José Antonio Kast, the leader of the far-right Acción Republicana since 2018. Kast played to nostalgia for the dictatorship of the late Augusto Pinochet, and expressed admiration for Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.
The explanation for Boric’s win, however, lies within Chile itself. Pinochet left office in 1990 after losing a 1988 referendum that proposed to let him rule through 1996, and Patricio Aylwin replaced him as president after his victory in late 1989. As is often the case, getting a dictator out of power required the acceptance of sacred cows the new democratic regime could not touch. In Chile it was more than protecting Pinochet personally (recall Chile’s defense of Pinochet during 1998 when the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón tried to prosecute him). It involved preserving the special role of the military entrenched in Pinochet’s 1980 constitution, including its control over the copper industry and its revenues. Another feature of the agreement was not touching the economic model pursued by Pinochet and the “Chicago Boys,” especially the private pension system. For nearly three decades, it worked. Chile was an economic model for the rest of Latin America, with its region-leading growth a shining example of the free market creating wealth. Chile’s politics were stable, even with the moderate left in power under Presidents Aylwin, Frei, Lagos, and Bachelet, plus Piñera on the democratic center-right. They all governed in the Bill Clinton/Tony Blair mold, and were regarded as practitioners of the Third Way. While the economy grew in a spectacular way, leaders essentially ignored the inequality that emerged under Pinochet, with the pension setup a particular mess. The investment funds lost money and left many retirees with no income, requiring a large state bailout.
Beyond pensions, access to education and health, also substantially privatized under Pinochet’s model, also deteriorated. By 2018, this triggered unrest and street protests, with demands that the state return to its pre-Pinochet role. This led to a plebiscite in October 2020 that approved scrapping the 1980 constitution and electing a constitutional convention to draft a new document altogether. This election took place in May 2021, and selected a convention dominated by the center-left and far left.
The 2021 presidential election took place on the heels of the forming of the constitutional convention. The Third Way Concertación and Piñera’s National Renewal were discredited and suffered a collapse similar to the Gaullists and Socialists in France. On the far right, Kast emerged as the candidate of those hoping for a resurrection of pinochetismo and the dismissal of the constitutional assembly. Boric, conversely, argued in favor of the new constitution and has called for the codification of an extensive welfare state. If Kast was Pinochet’s heir, Boric embraced the legacy of Salvador Allende, the Socialist president whom Pinochet overthrew (and had killed). The Communist Party is part of Boric’s alliance, though Boric clashed with it on several occasions during his campaign, particularly on his stance toward the governments of Cuba and Venezuela.
Boric’s domestic agenda is aggressive, and despite his clear win, he will try to enact it in the absence of a large congressional majority and in the face of fears of renewed street violence calling for more radical action, especially from the constitutional convention. Already the business sector has been public about its nervousness, with the Santiago stock exchange and the Chilean peso both falling by more than 10 percent in the week following the election. Boric’s foreign policy will be focused upon Latin America, especially the near abroad within South America. He has stated that the relationship with Argentina will be a priority, and intends for Buenos Aires to be his first visit outside the country. With Mercosur sputtering and neoliberal Chile never willing to join, Chile’s stance toward the bloc could be reexamined.
But the story to watch in Chile for the next couple of years is the party system that emerges in the wake of the collapse of the center and the return of the Allende-Pinochet divide.