Chile’s Political Pendulum Swings Back

Chile’s Political Pendulum Swings Back

Left-wing governance has disappointed voters, but the electoral center of the country’s politics remains contested.

The December 2021 election of Gabriel Boric as President of Chile was hailed by progressive opinion around the world. Here was a new type of Latin leftist—young, untainted by authoritarian tendencies, sensitive not only to longstanding issues of inequality but also to newer ones of climate change, gender, sexuality, and indigenous rights. He would represent a new, impatient generation of Chileans who would supplant the stodgy, timid centrists and implement real change.

Now, a year and a half later, the picture looks very different. Boric’s support has sunk in the polls, hovering around 30 percent. A new constitution drafted by a convention dominated by the political Left was soundly rejected in a referendum. The country’s Right triumphed in a follow-up election to name delegates to a second convention. Issues of crime, terrorism, and illegal immigration dominate the public agenda, while much of Boric’s legislative agenda is stuck in a divided Congress.

Amid Crisis, the Left Triumphs

The saga of the rise and apparent decline of Boric and Chile’s Left began in 2019 with a series of protests, extending for months and throughout the length of the country. The demonstrations were sparked initially by an increase in Santiago’s metro fares. Although many of the protesters, in what was known as the “social explosion,” were peaceful, there was significant violence and destruction of property.

The protests reached a point where it was unclear if then-President Sebastian Piñera could survive in office. Seeking a political solution to the unrest, Piñera and the political establishment agreed to a longstanding leftist demand for a convention to rewrite Chile’s constitution. The document was initially imposed during the dictatorial regime of General Augusto Pinochet but was significantly modified after the restoration of democracy in 1990.

Some on the far left saw the convention as a trap to channel the energies of the protests into normal politics. Boric, a former student leader-turned-congressman for a small, new leftist party (Social Convergence), supported it, giving him new prominence. The legislation authorizing the convention passed and was submitted to a referendum, where it gained extensive support from an exhausted public. In May 2021, an election was held to name delegates to the constitutional convention. To the surprise of many, leftist forces gained over a two-thirds majority.

Meanwhile, with Piñera’s term due to end in March of 2022, Boric, now a prominent national figure, ran for the presidency under the banner of the “Broad Front”—a coalition of relatively new leftist parties together with Chile’s Communist Party, which since the return to democracy had always commanded the support of a hard core of 6 or 7 percent of the population.

The traditional center-left and center-right coalitions nominated lackluster candidates; simultaneously, a new force emerged to their right—the Republican Party, led by Senator José Antonio Kast. The Republicans espoused economic and social conservatism and were prepared to defend the record of the Pinochet years. They have been compared to the new rightist parties which have emerged in Europe, such as Vox in Spain, the National Rally in France, and the Brothers of Italy.

In the first round, the centrist parties which had governed Chile since the return to democracy in 1990 suffered a collapse. The two winners who went on to the second round were Kast with 27.91 percent and Boric with 25.82 percent. No other grouping gained more than 13 percent.  In the second round, the voters decisively broke for Boric, who won with a majority of 55.9 percent.

Between the presidential election and convention delegate selection, it seemed the radical Left had made a remarkable comeback, reaching power not seen since the election of Salvador Allende in 1970. Under the leadership of a new generation of political leaders, Chile was perceived to be on a fast track to major political change. The cautious approach to achieving social progress, as exemplified by the slogans “growth with equity” and “realism without renunciation”—associated with center-left Presidents Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet—was not enough for an impatient public.

Events, however, unfolded very differently. Boric’s administration had to contend with the reality that its majority in the Chamber of Deputies included the center-left parties it sought to replace. In the evenly divided Senate, its position was even more tenuous.

Trying for a New Constitution

While the center-left parties were prepared to cooperate with Boric’s Broad Front coalition, matters were not helped by the measure of patronizing contempt which had emerged from the latter, as demonstrated by the presidential chief of staff who said that the New Left had “different values” from the previous, politically compromised generation.

In that frustrating environment, Boric and his government looked to the constitutional convention to draft a document in which their economic and social views would be permanently inscribed and held off on proposing major new legislation in the meantime. However, the convention, with its clear leftist majority, produced in July 2022 a result that was not palatable to the great majority of Chileans.

Its 388 articles guaranteed a leading role to the state in healthcare, education, and pensions, areas previously dominated by the private sector. Chile would be declared a “plurinational” state, with the indigenous communities exercising unprecedented autonomy, including their own justice systems. The document enshrined strict environmental controls, threatening Chile’s profitable mining, fishery, and forestry sectors. Moreover, the reformed legislature and judiciary gave the Left an unfair structural advantage.

Also, in addition to being radical in its final product, the conduct of many convention delegates offended Chileans. Performative gestures ranged from delegates interrupting the national anthem to the bizarre case of one who dressed up as a Pokemon character. Throughout the year-long convention, the majority lacked interest in accommodating centrist and conservative views. All of this led many voters to feel deep suspicion of the final draft.

Two Resounding Rejections

Although by the time the nationwide referendum on the draft constitution was held in September of 2022, its approval seemed doubtful, the level of rejection was stunning—62 percent of voters opposed it. Given that Boric was closely identified with the convention, his support seemed reduced to his hard-core supporters, a view which was supported by polling on his popularity.

After the rejection of the draft constitution Boric and the Left insisted that the original mandate from the people to write a new document still had validity and pushed for a second convention. While many on the Right were unenthusiastic, they were trapped by their promise to back a new convention if the first failed.

Ultimately Congress passed legislation authorizing a new convention, but this time with significant constraints on radical ambitions. The first draft would be prepared by a commission of experts named by the Congress; the actual convention (now called a “council”) would have limited authority to change the experts’ draft; and a board of arbitrators would review the final document to assure that it stayed within the fairly limited congressional mandate the council had been given.

Unlike the vote to elect the previous constitutional convention, this time, voters selected delegates from slates nominated by political parties—eliminating the independent intellectuals and civil society activists who had been among the most radical members. The results closely paralleled those of the previous constitutional referendum—leftist delegates made up only 34 percent of the new council.

And within the conservative majority of 66 percent of the delegates, its composition skewed well to the Right, with Jose Antonio Kast’s Republican Party becoming the dominant force with 46 percent of the total seats. This would make it, to judge by this vote at least, the most popular political party in Chile. This was a true earthquake, given the party had emerged recently, and it raised the prospect of a conservative renaissance.

It is worth noting that in both the first constitutional referendum and the election of the delegates to the second constitutional convention, voting was mandatory (it is not in the regular congressional and presidential elections.)  This new element of the electorate, which skews towards older voters, came down decisively on the political Right and had a key role in the final result in both cases.

This outcome, on top of the rejection of the previous draft constitution, has meant that any new constitution is not likely to differ vastly from the existing one. But beyond that, it means Boric, who is in office until 2026, is obliged to trim back his legislative ambitions while keeping his own coalition together. Even before the most recent debacle, he gave senior positions to figures from the old center-left parties while nonetheless claiming to stay true to his radical election platform.

The decline in support for Boric, as evidenced both in polling and in the results of the two votes regarding constitutional reform, has several causes. Certainly, the disastrous management of the first convention had an impact. But also, during his first year in office, other issues came to the forefront of national life: namely urban crime, especially in Santiago; the unprecedented flow of immigrants into Chile from Haiti and Venezuela; and the violence generated by radical indigenous groups in southern Chile.