Protesters in Chile have taken to the streets for months on end demanding social change and a new constitution. Two years on, José Antonio Kast, a former Pinochet supporter, is vying for the presidency in the runoff election.
Sophia Boddenberg works as a freelance journalist for German- and English-language media in Chile and other Latin American countries.
Translated by Hunter Bolin and Louise Pain for Gegensatz Translation Collective.
While this may initially appear to be a contradiction, the underlying causality can be explained. Struggles for social justice always face resistance from those who benefit from systems of exploitation. In Chile, a small minority is up in arms about the changes occasioned by the 2019 social revolt, which are now being discussed in a constitutional convention.
This dynamic became clear in the referendum conducted in October 2020, in which almost 80 percent of participants voted in favour of a new constitution. Only approximately 20 percent voted against it, thereby opting for the continuation of the constitution put in place during the Pinochet dictatorship, which reinforces the neoliberal model and grants private companies more rights than the general population. The latter option only garnered the majority of votes in five out of 346 electoral districts — precisely in those districts where Chile’s super rich live.
This political and economic elite dominates the public discourse in the almost entirely privatized and highly concentrated media landscape. What is conveyed to those who watch a lot of television and read the standard daily newspapers like El Mercurio and La Tercera is above all a sense of fear: fear of demonstrators, of migrants, and of the indigenous Mapuche, all of whom are portrayed as being responsible for spreading violence and destruction.
The representations that appear in the media impacts public perception — a phenomenon known as agenda setting. According to a survey conducted by the independent institute Espacio Público-Ipsos, security is the most pressing issue for Chileans, followed by work, health and pensions, and last but not least, climate change. According to another study, many Chileans are worried that migration will lead to an increase in crime and compromise their security — although this does not correspond to reality.
Presidential candidate José Antonio Kast exploits people’s worries and fears in order to create socio-political bogeymen. Among his many objectives is the plan to dig a trench in the north of Chile to prevent migrants from entering the country, and to prosecute the NGOs that help them.
Kast also makes protesters into political scapegoats. “The Chile of violence must stop, there is no place for hatred and violence here,” he says in his campaign advertisement, while images of protests and barricades are shown in the background, accompanied by an exuberant female voice singing about “freedom”. “This 19 December, we will not only choose a president. We will choose between freedom and communism,” it continues. Kast stokes fears of a supposed communist dictatorship, which, according to him, is embodied by the left-wing candidate Gabriel Boric. “Gabriel Boric stands for chaos, famine, and violence,” he said in a speech. He claims that Boric would turn Chile into Venezuela.
The section of the political right that remains loyal to Pinochet has not changed its rhetoric since the dictatorship: Kast’s campaign is intent on stirring up fear of leftists. His election advertisements promise a “country of freedom”; “Atrévete” (“Dare”) is his slogan.
In the campaign leading up to the historic referendum of 1988, which would determine whether or not the Pinochet dictatorship would extend its rule, Pinochet’s supporters also claimed that “freedom” was being threatened by communism. Kast was part of this campaign and actively supported the dictator at the time. His brother was a government minister under Pinochet, and his family was implicated in human rights violations in the municipality of Paine. “If Pinochet were alive, he would vote for me,” Kast once said in a radio interview.
At a press conference with foreign correspondents in November 2021, he denied that the Pinochet regime was a dictatorship and that opposition figures had been persecuted under Pinochet. According to the 2001 Valech Report of the National Truth Commission, at least 40,000 people were arrested, tortured, and persecuted for political reasons throughout the course of the dictatorship.
The Son of a Wehrmacht Officer
Kast is a 55-year-old lawyer and a strict Catholic. His father was a German Wehrmacht officer who emigrated to Chile after the Second World War. Kast’s rhetoric is explicitly right-wing populist in nature: “Dare to swim against the tide of the supposed majority,” he says in a YouTube video entitled “A rebellion is on its way”.
In the first round of the presidential election, Kast received 1,961,387 votes (out of more than 15 million eligible voters). In the 2020 referendum, 1,635,164 people had voted against a new constitution. The number of voters defending the legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship has thus increased only slightly.
However, Kast was only able to rally just under 28 percent of the vote in the first round due to the fact that more than half of the electorate abstained from voting. Voter turnout in Chile has been below 50 percent for several election periods. Although that figure had risen to just over 50 percent for the first time for the constitutional referendum, it dropped slightly to approximately 47 percent in the presidential election.
If Kast’s votes are counted against the total number of eligible voters — that is, including non-voters — , only 13 percent of the electorate voted for him. So the prospect of a “rising tide of fascism”, which some people in Chile speak of, is currently unlikely to materialize.
But many people have lost faith in politics. Voter turnout saw a sharp decline, especially among young people and residents of the so-called barrios populares, the working-class neighbourhoods. “Many people, especially young people, voted for the first time in the constitutional referendum. But they did not vote in the presidential election,” says María Cristina Escudero, a political scientist at the Universidad de Chile. “In the countryside, on the other hand, voter turnout increased and that’s where Kast got a lot of votes.”
Left-Wing Candidate Gabriel Boric
But why is it that the left-wing candidate Gabriel Boric failed to win over the people who took to the streets in 2019 for more social justice, better pensions, and a public education and healthcare system — all issues that can constitute part of his campaign platform?
The 35-year-old Boric comes from Punta Arenas, situated in the deep south of Chile; he was born to a wealthy family and attended an elite school. In 2011, he was one of the leaders of the student movement that campaigned for a fair public education system. In 2012, he was elected president of the Fech student union, and in 2015 he was elected MP for the southern Región de Magallanes.
Some accuse him of being a burguesito, a “little bourgeois” who has never experienced firsthand the suffering endured by other Chileans. His father is a member of the Democracia Cristiana (DC) party, which many in Chile hold responsible for the military coup that took place in 1973, because the party stabbed the socialist president Salvador Allende in the back.
Boric is also haunted by accusations of being a traidor, a “traitor” to the 2019 revolt, because on 15 November 2019 he joined MPs from the government camp in signing the Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution, which laid out the institutional process for a new constitution. At the time, Boric signed the treaty on his own, without the support of his party, and without involving the protest movement in the negotiations. To this day, social movements criticize him for sitting down behind closed doors with the same right-wing politicians who were responsible for the brutal police violence committed against protestors on the streets. The agreement did not lay out any measures for legally prosecuting the serious human rights violations committed by state actors during the protests or to free the prisoners who were arrested at the time, some of whom are still in pre-trial detention today.
Boric’s co-signature also ensured the continuation of Sebastián Piñera’s government, which consequently took the wind out of the sails of the demonstrators’ calls for his removal. Polls indicate that Piñera has to date governed with less than 15 percent support.
The issues that inspired people to take to the streets in October 2019 — social inequality, education, health, pensions, wages — have by no means been ameliorated or alleviated, but rather exacerbated by the pandemic. A great many people have lost hope of seeing any kind of tangible change in the foreseeable future. Although the Constitutional Convention is working at record speed, the changes will probably not be felt for several years.
Hope Instead of Fear
Boric’s campaign is based on a sense of hope: “We don’t want to spread fear, we want to spread hope,” he said after the first round of voting. In his election television advertisement, he appeals to people to “trust in the future” and promises “a better life”. He claims that he will raise the minimum wage, tax companies more, introduce a new pension system, and campaign for women’s rights and environmental protection. Although his campaign platform can at best be described as social democratic, he is accused of being an “extremist” by many Chilean media outlets.
This phenomenon has led to calls for Boric to moderate his rhetoric in order to appeal to voters from the political centre. The parties of the former Concertación, the centre-left coalition that has ruled Chile since the end of the dictatorship, has already guaranteed him their support. But these are the same parties that many people are disappointed with.
The protest slogan “It’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years” was primarily directed against the Concertación, which did indeed initiate Chile’s transition to democracy, but at the same time continued to pursue the neoliberal policies of the dictatorship. Boric’s strategy of approximating these policies could also make him less credible in the eyes of those seeking a departure from the policies of the last 30 years.
“We have to reach out to those who did not vote for us, we have to listen to them and understand them,” Boric said during a speech after the first round of elections, in which he received fewer votes than José Antonio Kast. But that process of reaching out is by no means an easy feat. According to polls, confidence in Chile’s political parties is currently languishing at two percent. It is therefore unlikely that a political shift in the direction of the centrist parties will motivate non-voters who are disappointed with politics.
“Boric’s strategy must to move in two directions: on the one hand, he needs to show his ability to govern and appeal to the centre-left who vote out of a sense of duty, and on the other hand, motivate the younger voters who took part in the referendum but did not vote in the presidential election,” says María Cristina Escudero.
Boric is spending the weeks leading up to the runoff election travelling through the different regions of Chile in an attempt to win over voters outside the capital Santiago. He has also appointed Izkia Siches, a doctor and former president of the Chilean Medical Association, as his new campaign manager. She enjoys great popularity among the Chilean people. “Gabriel unites us instead of dividing us. Our country needs to see changes, and these will give us stability,” Siches says in one of Boric’s election advertisements.
Fear of a far-right president has led many organizations and social movements to pledge their support to Boric. This includes the feminist umbrella organization Coordinadora Feminista 8M, which held a meeting after the first round of voting, attended by thousands of women, to discuss strategies for hindering Kast’s election. Many agreed on the urgent need for political education at the grassroots level, in working-class neighbourhoods where voter turnout is particularly low — education on the one hand pertaining to the threat Kast poses to women, members of the LGBTQI+ community, and migrants, and on the other hand about Boric’s concrete proposals that would improve people’s quality of life. “Boric does not represent our political project, but Kast is a direct threat to the lives of women, migrants, queers, and political dissidents,” says Daniela Osorio, spokesperson for Coordinadora Feminista 8M.
Kast wants to ban abortion, opposes same-sex marriage, wants to preclude unmarried women from receiving state welfare payments, and close the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. He refers to sex education classes in schools as “gender indoctrination” and wants to put an end to them entirely. Johannes Kaiser, a member of parliament from Kast’s coalition, even questioned whether women should have the right to vote.
Kast also opposes the prospect of a new constitution and would be likely to obstruct the work of the Constitutional Convention. “Boric would be a kind of transitional government that would keep the constitutional process open, which the extreme right is desperate to end,” says Daniela Osorio.
The stakes in the 19 December presidential election are high. Even if Boric wins the election, it will be hard for him to implement his programme because his Apruebo Dignidad coalition does not have a majority in congress. But he would enable and support the work of the Constitutional Convention, which is where the changes for which the people of Chile have so long fought are being developed.