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Gabriel Boric

Gabriel Boric. Photo: Mediabanco Agencia / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

Gabriel Boric's victory is a profound step forward for class-based politics in Chile and Latin America at large, writes John McGrath

Left candidate Gabriel Boric has won the second round of Chile’s presidential election against his far-right opponent Jose Antonio Kast on Sunday night. Boric won 56% of the vote, besting his rival by over 10 points, in a hinge point election which potentially could affect Chilean politics for a generation.

Jose Antonio Kast, representing the Partido Republicano, received the most votes in the first round of voting on 21 November. The thought of him winning the general election was a nightmare scenario - Kast is an ultra-reactionary who identifies with Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and Augusto Pinochet. He campaigned against communism, abortion rights, immigration from Hatti and Venezuela, and the LGBTQ community. Kast is also a free-market extremist and accused outgoing billionaire President Sebastian Pinera of betraying the economic legacy of the “Miracle of Chile” - an ahistorical euphemism used by economist Milton Friedman to describe the reorientation of the economy during Pinochet’s dictatorship.

But tragedy was adverted and Gabriel Boric won on Sunday night. Boric, who is 35, will be the most left-wing Chilean President of his lifetime. He is the candidate of Apruebo Dignidad, a progressive electoral coalition of nine political parties comprised of Greens, Christian Socialists, Social Democrats, and the Communist Party of Chile among others. Chile is undergoing a redrafting of its constitution, which Boric actively supports. A Kast victory would have put the new constitution project in jeopardy. Boric is reported to have received the support of young voters and the urban working class in the first round, and Sunday's victory expanded on this coalition, especially in the Santiago metropolitan and Valparaiso regions where he dramatically increased his vote share.

The election results signify a break from the status quo of Chilean politics which has defined the neoliberal era. In some ways, neoliberalism was christened in the hemisphere on 11 September 1973 when socialist President Salvador Allende was overthrown by General Augusto Pinochet in a US backed coup d’état. Pinochet’s military dictatorship was marked by political repression, violence, and hyper market liberalisation pursued by Chilean economists known as the “Chicago Boys” who were trained at the University of Chicago under Milton Friedman in the 1970s.

The Political Constitution of the Republic of Chile, which was drafted by Pinochet’s circle, became the fundamental law in Chile on 11 September 1980. When Pinochet was ousted and democracy was restored in the late 1980’s, the constitution remained and Chileans voted in a series of centre and centre-right governments. Michelle Banchelet and Sebastian Pinera have each been voted in and out of office twice over the last four elections, trading power every four years since 2006.

In some ways, Boric’s victory is the culmination of events which tipped off in 2019 in what has been a tumultuous couple of years of Chilean social struggle and political transformation. What began as a youthful protest over an increase in public transit fares escalated in a matter of weeks into a mass uprising on 18 October 2019 which saw the desecration of 81 Santiago metro stations. The following week, 1.2 million citizens marched in the streets of Santiago against austerity and inequality. Within a year 78% of the participants of a national plebiscite voted to redraft the 1980 constitution in a determinative moment in Chilean history. Months later, in May of 2021, Chileans voted for left-wing politicians and activists to fill the seats of the Constitutional Assembly, guaranteeing that a new constitution’s formation would be a break from the past which couldn’t be over ruled by the right.

Boric is the extension of this political upheaval but he is not explicitly a radical. Boric’s platform prioritised improvements in social services that most highly developed countries take for granted, but like the United States, Chile’s welfare state has been stunted or dismantled by over 40 years of extreme liberalisation. He campaigned on free public education, universal health coverage, a reduction of the work week from 45 to 40 hours, national pension reform, and the public ownership of water.

Chile has the third lowest union density of OECD countries in the hemisphere, behind only the US and Mexico (approximately 14 percent of the Chilean workforce in 2020). The country implemented a school voucher program during the dictatorship in 1981 and education has endured decades of decentralisation and privatisation. The national health care system that was established in the 1950s also transitioned during the dictatorship with the introduction of a two-tier system that encouraged people to purchase private health insurance by doctors working outside the national system at private hospitals. In time, predictably, public health outcomes deteriorated and private insurance became a luxury good affordable to less than 19% of the population. Programs like these contributed to social and economic stratification; income inequality in Chile is considerably more extreme then it is in the UK or the US and ranks amongst the worst of OECD countries. 

Chile projects to join Mexico, Argentina and the social-democratic left of Latin America. This is in contrast to the more militant, left countries of the ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America) pole: Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia. ALBA countries have united in a regional bloc to challenge US capital and are incompatible with Washington, and as such, are punished with crippling sanctions and political intervention. It is unlikely that Boric will be met with similar hostility from US planners.  When pressed, Boric described Cuba and Venezuela as “dictatorships” during the campaign and described the 2021 Nicaraguan election as a farce. Perhaps somewhat related, his victory late Sunday night wasn’t met with immediate hostility or hand wringing by the BBC or the New York Times.

But each country has its own individual struggles, contradictions, and trajectories and clearly Gabriel Boric is the most left-wing Chilean to be elected president since Salvador Allende 41 years ago. His victory is celebrated by leftists around the world and a profound step forward for class-based politics in Chile and Latin America at large. Likewise, the legacies of Pinochet, Milton Friedman, and Henry Kissinger took a beating Sunday night. And maybe most pressing, the world avoided a far-right demagogue who would have set the progressive movement in Chile back years if not a generation.

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