Chileans seem to have taken to heart Oscar Wilde’s advice, “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.” This is precisely what they are currently doing. The election of the millennial Gabriel Boric, who rose to prominence during anti-government protests, as President is a game-changing development that will have repercussions far beyond the Latin American region.
Ariel Dorfman, cultural adviser to Salvador Allende’s Chief of Staff in 1973, is right when he says, Chile is “a shining example of liberation for a turbulent world that is crying out for some light in the midst of so much darkness.”Globally, the romance of democracy has waned considerably. But Latin America bucks the trend.
Chile is the shining star. It knows, to be a star it must shine its own light and follow its own path. With Boric’s historic victory, Chilean politics has entered a new phase. Though it would be premature to say that Latin America is on the verge of a ‘youthquake,’ the old and the young have become separate political nations. The massive mandate for Boric is the outcome of consolidation of the younger voters and left and progressive forces.
In 2011, Boric led the student protests for free schooling. He was among the occupiers of the University of Chile’s main campus building in 2014 which lasted 44 days. The millennials, long ridiculed as selfish and narcissistic Twitter drones have begun winning elections. They are now the largest age group in the work force. Boric mostly uses jackets and shuns ties but he loves his tattoos. A generational change in Chile has coincided with the emergence of social and student movements as a dominant political force.
With a larger mandate than his predecessors, Boric represents the forces that don’t belong to the dominant traditional political compact since the 1990s. He is the first candidate in the post Pinochet era to have won after coming second in the first round. In 2016, he founded his own party, the Autonomist Movement. The success of Boric and others in Peru and elsewhere is the outcome of the new left’s ability to appropriate the essence of Spain’s left-wing Podemos party’s slogan, “we are neither right nor left, we are coming from the bottom and going for the top.”
Boric was one of the authors of the deal that helped end the 2019 protests. On 25 October 2019, more than a million people had gathered in Plaza Dignidad in Santiago to demand revoking the controversial constitution. It was a volcanic eruption creating a magmatic force that many think changed Chile forever. One slogan on the wall at the Dignity Plaza perhaps best captured the moment. It said, “Neoliberalism was born and will die in Chile.”
The churchgoing Roman Catholic Jose Antonio Kast, a polar opposite of Boric, proved no match for Boric. And yet, he got 44 per cent of the vote for his regressive agenda which included further militarization of Chilean society, abolition of women’s ministry and his homophobic agenda. Many commentators were predicting his victory arguing that voter apathy could hand the presidency to the far-right inheritor of Pinochet’s legacy.
Chile has had the best and the worst of experiences in the past 60-70 years. By the time Allende was elected president, Chile had become one of the most highly evolved political communities in Latin America where democracy had reached a very high level. Chile was seen as exemplary in terms of its rule of law and economic performance.
It was categorized as a consolidated democracy and depicted as a successful system transformation. The election of Salvador Allende in 1970 was no ordinary development. Chile became the first nation in the world to make the choice to have a Marxist president which prompted New York Times to write, “Chileans have elected a revolution.”
The CIA engineered coup in 1973 brutally ended the experiment. Even the opposition, the Christian Democratic Party, had conceded that Allende had won legitimately. One of the leaders argued that “to deny his presidency would be the same as telling 36 per cent of the electorates that ‘you have the right to participate in elections but not to win them’.”
Today, Latin America has half a dozen governments that could be described as neo-left or third left. Venezuela, Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Argentina and Honduras have governments which represent various shades of the third left. However, what Latin America is witnessing currently is not the “Pink Tide” 2.0; it is experiencing the consolidation of the social-democratic revolution. Just because the winning coalition has a communist party as its constituent, and it rejects neoliberalism, doesn’t make it a pink revolution. It should be better understood as an outcome of the deepening of democracy.
Chileans seem to be asking what Yale University political scientist Helene Landemore has famously said, “if government is for the people, why can’t the people do the governing?” Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Pedro Castillo, Alberto Fernandez and Luis Arce, presidents of Mexico, Peru, Argentina and Bolivia represent different faces of the third left. Unlike them, Boric has openly rejected Cuban, Venezuelan and Nicaraguan regimes as “tragic farces.”
He has criticized Nicaragua’s sham election, Venezuela’s human rights abuses and Cuba’s repression of peaceful protesters. Boric may emerge as a new role model for the third left. That would be in conformity with what has come to be known as Chilean exceptionalism.
Boric’s message is unmistakable: “We are a new generation that is entering politics with clean hands, a warm heart and a cool head…We will make Chile more human, decent and egalitarian.” However, he has his task cut out. It remains to be seen how he introduces a Europeanstyle, social-democratic agenda and what steps he takes to address growing inequality. His victory is largely seen as a rebellion against elitism.
Boric’s victory is likely to be tempered by a divided congress though it is expected to smoothen the work of the Constitutional Convention that must complete its work by July 2022. Boric will require to exhibit exemplary political skill to broaden his parliamentary base. In three months’ time, the left will cease to have a majority in the Congress.
In addition, after concluding its work, the Constitutional Convention may call for fresh presidential elections once the new charter is ratified in a plebiscite. Will Chile be the harbinger of a regional trend? Brazil’s Luis Inacio Lula da Silva is widely tipped to wrest power in 2022.
Colombia, which never had a leftist government, may also throw up a surprise. Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla, is currently leading the opinion polls. Many in Latin America have been asserting that “another world is possible.” Has Chile shown the way how to get there, or is the country only a little sliver of what can be possible? Time alone will tell.
(The writer is Director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi)