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 Boric administration, which ran on a platform of diversity and social inclusion, was ill-equipped and slow to address these issues. Eventually, it took reluctant steps, such as deploying the military to support the police in the south. It had to swallow hard and accept legislation passed over its objections which limited the liability of the police and army when faced with brutality charges. But at the same time, in what proved to be a highly unpopular step, it reached out to its far left base by pardoning several protesters convicted of violent acts during the social explosion.

Who Will Win the Center?

Faced with low popularity and lacking a solid working majority in Congress, Boric has lowered his sights while still proclaiming fealty to the radical program on which he ran. He has scored some successes—a law increasing royalties on Chile’s crucial mining industry has passed after a downward adjustment. The work week has been reduced from 45 to 40 hours, and the minimum wage raised.

But other elements of his platform, such as a large general tax increase, massive increases in the state’s role in the health and pension systems, and a proposed state-run lithium mining enterprise, will face considerable modification in Congress if they are to have any chance of passing in face of emboldened moderates and conservatives.

Boric, however, should not be written off completely. He retains his appealing, youthful persona. While his fundamental views remain radical, he has taken steps to moderate his message and frustrate his Communist and independent leftist base. Old center-left establishment figures remain in key cabinet positions, and Boric’s legislative agenda is limited to his top priorities.

If he gets some legislation passed, even if it is watered down, and the economy picks up, he may see improvement in his standing. Indeed, his recent address to Congress, which struck a conciliatory tone, has given him a momentary uptick in the polls.

Chile’s center-right and center-left governments had real achievements, making the country a poster child for economic development and poverty reduction over the last thirty years. However, they became complacent, with the same faces cycling through key positions over the years. At the same time, there was a failure of nerve, particularly among the center-left, which seemingly felt guilty about defending the merits of gradualism in the face of the public’s rising expectations.

This opened the way for Boric and the far left. But they erred in assuming that the center’s collapse meant that Chilean public opinion had shifted to the point where they had free rein to implement their vision. This overreaching, in turn, opened the door to Kast and the hard right.

But Chile’s disillusioned centrist voters remain the key battleground. Kast’s Republicans will try hard to permanently capture them and will likely give special attention to those older Chileans who came out for the recent votes on constitutional issues. At the same time, the centrist parties will seek to reconstitute themselves and regain their lost support.

But it is also possible that Boric—now rebranded as a more moderate social democrat—will find a way to once more reclaim the center while retaining much of his hard left support. He is down, but not out, and Chile’s center remains up for grabs.

Richard M. Sanders is Senior Fellow, Western Hemisphere at the Center for the National Interest. He is also a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. A former member of the Senior Foreign Service of the U.S. Department of State, he has served as Director of the Office of Brazilian and Southern Cone Affairs and at embassies throughout Latin America.

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