On the night of Sunday, 19 December, before hundreds of thousands of supporters overflowing Santiago’s main thoroughfare, Gabriel Boric Font — the same young man who, ten years ago, led the nation’s student movement for free public education — delivered his victory speech as president-elect of Chile. It was a night of national celebration, and little wonder why.
Pierina Ferretti is a doctoral candidate in Latin American Studies at the University of Chile and currently a researcher for the Fundación Nodo XXI. This article was published in cooperation with Jacobin América Latina.
Boric, Chile’s soon to be youngest president at only 35 years of age, won the elections handily with a historically high vote-count of 4.6 million. In doing so, he became the first left-wing candidate to win a presidential election since Salvador Allende in September 1970. Last, but certainly not least, he put to rest any fear that far-right challenger José Antonio Kast might reach the La Moneda Palace.
Celebrations could be heard outside Chile as well. Boric’s election was hailed internationally by leftists and progressives as a major breakwater against a rising conservative tide that seems to be sweeping the globe. At a time when the outcome of the capitalist crisis is being decided by competing projects — on one side, democratic recovery and the rebuilding of social rights, the other, ultra-conservative attacks on social movements and emancipatory aspirations — Boric’s victory has a special strategic relevance.
Moreover, in Latin America, the triumph of the Chilean Left gives hope to the rebirth of a new progressive cycle. Limitations notwithstanding, Boric’s election means he will join a host of progressive governments including Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico (2018), Alberto Fernández in Argentina (2019), Luis Arce in Bolivia (2020), Pedro Castillo in Peru (2021), and Xiomara Castro in Honduras (2021) — not to mention the possible 2022 victories of Gustavo Petro in Colombia and Lula da Silva in Brazil next year.
Boric’s emergence on the Latin American political scene will also help strengthen the Left’s commitment to democracy, freedoms, and human rights — concerns that the new president, as heir to the Chilean tradition of democratic socialism, has been emphatic in supporting. It should be remembered that Boric, unlike other leaders of the Chilean and Latin American Left, has not hesitated to openly criticize the authoritarian drift of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua or Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. He also supported demonstrations this past year in Cuba, bucking a tendency to avoid criticism of nominally left-wing governments.
The “2011 Generation” Marches into La Moneda
Gabriel Boric’s victory is an expression of just how much Chile’s twenty-first century anti-neoliberal struggles have matured over the years. The president-elect came of age amid the student revolts of 2011, accompanied by a group of young political leaders that includes Giorgio Jackson and the communist militants Camila Vallejo and Karol Cariola. The first Chilean movement in recent history with an openly anti-neoliberal vision, it gained nation-wide support and even managed to poke holes in the legitimacy of Sebastián Piñera’s regime. In fact, through the student movement, demands for the right to free public education became an explicit challenge to the core tenant of neoliberalism: the commodification of central aspects of social reproduction and state-subsidized corporate profit.
All during that time, Chile’s political elites were running out of steam. The “2011 generation”, as it has been called, took as its target not only the political Right, but also the centre-left gathered in the Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia. A conglomerate of parties that oversaw the country after Pinochet’s dictatorship, the Concertación actually maintained and in some cases even deepened existing neoliberal policies from the Pinochet era.
The student collectives that formed the core of the movement eventually led to the creation of new parties, many of which gathered under the Frente Amplio or “Broad Front” coalition. Allied with the Communist Party, they later became the basis of what is known today as Apruebo Dignidad, an electoral alliance that supported Boric’s candidacy and has increasingly managed to assert itself as an independent political alternative to the Concertación.
Keys to Victory
Gabriel Boric won elections with 55.9 percent of the vote, surpassing his opponent by almost one million votes. That resounding victory nevertheless took place against the backdrop of the alarming rise of far-right candidate José Antonio Kast, who achieved an unexpected surge and actually clinched a plurality of the votes in the first round.
To the alarm of many leftists, the Apruebo Dignidad candidate won a very similar vote count between the first round and the earlier July Apruebo Dignidad party primaries. Fears abounded that Boric had reached a plateau where instead what he needed was to gain a substantial vote share.
The first round election was hence a bucket of cold water for the Left, social movements, and the whole spectrum of democratic forces. It was inconceivable that, after Chile’s popular revolt of 2019, the country’s massive feminist movement, and amid the process of rewriting the constitution, a far-right candidate could be the frontrunner.
Fortunately, that threat was answered by an intense show of political muscle in the weeks that followed. Within a few days, the country’s democratic forces had rallied behind Boric’s candidacy: the parties of the former Concertación and some of its most representative leaders, such as former presidents Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet, expressed their support; from the other end of the spectrum, figures emblematic of the “popular” or grassroots camp — connected to the social revolt and hence reluctant to work with political parties — called to vote for the left-wing candidate.
One turning point came when Senator-elect Fabiola Campillai and Gustavo Gatica pledged their support for Boric. Both Campillai and Gatic were left blind by police repression during the 2019 uprising and have since become prominent activists in the struggle for justice and reparations. In that same vein, Boric received the backing of important indigenous leaders such as Machi Francisca Linconao, a Mapuche spiritual authority and member of the Constitutional Convention, as well as Elisa Loncón, also a Mapuche leader and president of the Constitutional Convention.
The vast majority of social movements, unions, trade associations, and organized sectors lent their support. Within these movements, feminist organizations played an especially significant role.
However, the most impressive — and decisive — campaign in the weeks leading up to the runoff election was led by diverse autonomous and independent groups: from artists to animal activists, LGBTIQ+ collectives to progressive Christians, neighbourhood associations, cultural centres, football fans, and an endless list of groups that organized their own campaigns in support of Boric.
Bicycle rallies, concerts, poetry recitals, leafleting and door-to-door canvassing could be seen all over the country, frequently outpacing the official candidate's own campaign. Driving this enormous social mobilization was an active people, committed to the defence of social and political advances.
That autonomous show of force points to one of the greatest sources of political power in Chilean society today. The Left is aware that it cannot advance its reform program without the active support of society, and that, to do so, it needs to give them a leading role in the developing political process. This virtuous relationship between politics and society, which Apruebo Dignidad is putting to the test, is the antithesis of the demobilization strategy embraced by the Concertación when it assumed the reigns of the state in 1990.
In terms of electoral results, there is little room for doubt where the effectiveness of social mobilizations is concerned: Gabriel Boric's victory was buoyed by a substantial rise in electoral participation between the first and second round, especially among women under 50 years of age and within the popular and working-class neighbourhoods of Chile’s capital. 68 percent of women under 30 years of age and 56 percent of those between 30 and 50 voted for Boric, and in the working-class neighbourhoods of Santiago, his support sometimes ran as high as 70 percent.
Overall turnout itself rose from 43 percent to 55.6 percent between first and second round elections, the equivalent to 1.2 million more voters. Amid that increase, Boric obtained 4.6 million votes compared to his 1.8 million from the first round.
While the reasons for the increase in voter turnout may vary, there are some clues. Certainly the overwhelming support of women can be linked to the contemporary feminist movement: women in Chile have grown more aware of rights won, are more willing to fight for those still unachieved, such as free abortion, and take an active interest in avoiding any kind of conservative backsliding.
On the other hand, Boric’s broad base of support in popular and working-class neighbourhoods speaks to the politicization of those sectors as a result of the social revolt of October 2019. Those same neighbourhoods formed the front line of the 2019 revolt and suffered brutal police repression; in fact, the vast majority of injured and dead come from the popular neighbourhoods of the Metropolitan region. It would not be a leap to suppose that government repression has soured many working-class Chileans to the law-and-order rhetoric of the extreme right.
New Struggles and New Actors
With Boric’s triumph, the Chilean Left has taken a decisive step towards establishing itself as a viable political alternative, displacing the Concertación-Right duopoly for state leadership. However, in the ten years that have passed since the 2011 student mobilizations, new struggles, new actors, and new forces have emerged in Chilean society, many operating autonomously from existing politics institutions –including those on the Left formed by Apruebo Dignidad.
Among these forces, the most powerful has been the feminist movement. Ever since 2018, when student protests against sexual harassment in universities shot the feminist movement to the top of the public agenda, the Chilean feminist movement has become a society-wide galvanizing force. Feminism, understood as an organized movement and as a sensibility or cultural force, has been one of the decisive factors in this period of struggle, perhaps even going beyond what the more established Left is capable of.
Indeed, even though a considerable part of feminism exists outside the institutional Left, this does not prevent it from articulating at different levels with existing political structures. This has been the case with the Constitutional Convention, where several constituents come from the feminist movement, and, above all, it was on display in the second round campaign, in which the feminist movement came out in force to support Boric.
Socio-environmental organizations have also been gaining ground at the local and national level. The importance of the environmental movement was on display in the recent constituents election, wherein a large number of local leaders linked to struggles against extractivism and the land protection won seats at the Convention; it was also evident from Rodrigo Mundaca, leader in the struggle for water access rights who was elected as governor of the Valparaíso region.
Since the popular revolt of 2019, large numbers of people have begun to organize not only beyond the traditional political Left, but also outside the more well-defined social movements. The revolt left a tally of countless collective experiences, neighbourhood assemblies, and territorial councils. For these groups, the constitutional assembly represents an opportunity to do politics beyond the strictures of traditional politics — left-wing politics included
This initially came to a head in the so-called People’s List, an independent candidate list that performed very well in winning representation in the Constituent Assembly but failed in its objective of presenting a challenger in the presidential election. The List ultimately ended up dissolving soon after. As previously mentioned, Fabiola Campillai, who won a landslide victory making her the most voted senator in the country, is a lodestar for autonomous politics in the halls of power.
Apruebo Dignidad may be the most politically established expression of left-wing politics, but it by no means hegemonizes the range of interventions available in the field of popular politics. In fact, much of the future fortunes of Apruebo Dignidad will depend on how it can build bridges and dialogue with these sectors without putting them in a subordinate role
Manage or Transform the Present?
“It will not be easy, it will not be fast, but our commitment is to move forward”, said Gabriel Boric towards the end of his first speech as president-elect. Beyond the economic and social consequences of the pandemic, and the expected backlash of economic powers, the Chilean legislature, where the Left lacks a majority, will also prove a sticking point. Absent that majority, it will be difficult for the next government to pass some of its biggest proposals for structural reform, such as tax reform, pension system reform, and the health reform. In a country expecting to see decisive redress to problems left festering for decades, this will prove a crucial factor. In fact, it may mean that popular pressure on Congress will be necessary to make progress around certain crucial points.
On the other hand, Apruebo Dignidad faces the challenge of being the government of transformation, rather than the caretaker administration for the crisis of the transition-era politics. What place will former Concertación cadres have in the government, what will the relationship be with social movements, how open will the government be to social participation? These are questions that remain open and will only become clearer as the president-elect names his first cabinet.
What is clear is that the new president has a favourable attitude towards working alongside and in favour of the Constitutional Convention. Gabriel Boric knows that his legacy will depend in large part on whether the new Constitution is approved under his administration — he will want that the text to replace Augusto Pinochet’s document bear his signature.
On the other hand, the approval of an anti-neoliberal Constitution would be convenient for his own government, since it will leverage the structural transformations proposed in his programme and counteract the obstacles he will encounter in Congress. An anti-neoliberal Constitution endorsed by the Chilean people and the possibility of general elections at the end of the constituent process could, together with the re-election of Boric, allow for a parliament much more favourable for large-scale reforms.
But these hypotheses are only possibilities. Leaving aside for now the most evident challenges awaiting the next government, not to mention the conflicts and contradictions it will face as it seeks to make political alliances, Chilean society sent a clear message by electing Gabriel Boric: the people are in favour deep transformations, women and working-class neighbourhoods have the power to defeat the ultra-right, and, after fifty years, the Left can govern in a country that, this time, after decades of neoliberalism, is asserting its right to build its own destiny based on justice and dignity. The Chilean people are here to stay and to lead, and that is, when all is said and done, the best news of this election.