Chile: Presidential elections reflect move into a new era

Preparing for a new Bachelet government, Marcel Claude and the building of a new force for workers and youth

This year, workers and youth in struggle – in Chile and around the world – marked the 40th anniversary of the bloody military US-backed coup which brought down the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende in blood. Much comment has been made on the significance of this anniversary, including by the CWI [see on this link]. However, today’s events in Chile, where Presidential and legislative elections will take place on 17 November, are giving this anniversary a new significance. The arrival of a new period of crisis, turmoil, struggle and instability is seeing the contradictions stored up following the coup and botched-up transition to “democracy” unravel, seemingly all at once.

The current Presidential election campaign, despite the large majority predicted for former Concertacion (“centre-left” coalition which ruled for over 20 years following Pinochet) President, Michelle Bachelet, reflects in many ways Chile’s entry into this new period.

Contradictions of post-Pinochet era unravelling

Following Pinochet’s coup, Chile became the world’s laboratory for neo-liberal policies. The crushing of the workers’ movement and left by Pinochet opened the door to a series of brutal attacks. Thus, the struggle against it was tightly bound up with the struggle of the working class for rights and decent conditions, and therefore against Chilean capitalism: the dictatorship of the bosses and imperialism. The massive demonstrations and strike-waves which marked the last years of the dictatorship were seen by many workers as a way to take up anew the struggle begun in the 1970s for a socialist society. However, this process was tragically nipped in the bud, as the leaders of the workers’ and main left organizations succeeded in channelling these struggles along the path of “peaceful negotiations”, which established capitalist democracy without doing away with the dictatorship of the big bosses and imperialism. Workers and the poor were told that this transition would allow the election of left governments which would dramatically change the situation.

An indeed, November 17 will be Chile’s 6th Presidential election since the end of the dictatorship, out of which 4 have been won by Concertacion candidates. However, these 20 years of Concertacion governments have been 20 years of betrayal, during which the neo-liberalism of the Pinochet era was not only maintained, but often deepened. Pinochet’s constitution was maintained – he was even appointed Senator for life!

The last government of Bachelet – despite her nauseating attempts to emphasise her anti-dictatorship credentials – was no exception. Bachelet – daughter of an anti-coup military leader during Allende’s government killed by torture – did of course, struggle against the Pinochet coup and was even tortured herself following its triumph. However, she quickly forgot about this as she approached power. She did not touch Pinochet’s constitution or anti-worker laws. Her regime even employed “anti-terrorist” laws dreamt up under Pinochet against the struggles of the Mapuche people. Under her government more Mapuche (oppressed indigenous community) were assassinated by state forces than under the current right-wing government of Pinera!

Discredited political establishment and system, inherited from dictatorship

As one can imagine, patience with the Concertacion and the whole botched-up arrangement of post-Pinochet Chile began to wear out. Over 20 years later, this was given a distorted expression in the Concertacion’s first Presidential election defeat, with the victory of the right and Pinera. The Concertacion had so badly betrayed the struggle to change Chile following the dictatorship that the unthinkable – a democratic election victory for a supporter of the coup! – happened.

However, the right wing’s honeymoon was extremely short-lived, and Pinera leaves office as the least popular President since Allende (i.e. even less popular than the bloody dictator himself!). The main factor in this is the reawakening of the class struggle. However, this has generally not been accompanied by a recuperation of confidence in the Concertacion.

Indeed, the main development has been one of a massive disillusionment with the entire political establishment. For example, the last electoral date (municipal elections in November last year) saw over 60% abstaining! This phenomenon is especially strong amongst the youth. At the time of Pinera’s election 75% of young people had not seen the point in even registering to vote! Knowing this, it is no surprise that it is the youth – in the form of the massive and heroic student movement – which has been the chief protagonist in the explosion of struggle over the last years.

These explosive struggles have been marked by a massive rejection of the system, and have featured far reaching demands, including the abolition of the Pinochet constitution and the formation of a Constituent Assembly. The election campaign – even that of the bourgeois parties – reflects this. There is not one major candidate, from either the “left” of right, who does not call for either reform or abolition of the Constitution! This reflects the massive questioning and opposition which exists to the failed system established following the dictatorship.

The right-wing campaign has been split, partially reflecting the headache that the dictatorship represents for it. Alongside Evelyn Mattei, candidate of the Alianza, a second right-wing candidate, economist and TV personality, Franco Parisi, is also standing. He is running on a right-wing programme, but attempting to give it a “fresh face”, emphasising the need to break from an explicit association with the legacy of the dictatorship (despite inconvenient photos of him alongside Pinochet!). Parisi’s campaign, which has developed more momentum than many thought, even neck and neck with the official Alianza candidate in some polls, is another expression – albeit distorted – of the crisis of the regime.

The Bachelet phenomenon – towards a new government of crisis

Bachelet’s popularity would seem to contradict this picture, but this is misleading. First of all, her “high popularity” masks the massive majority which has no intention to vote for her, between those who will vote for others and those who will not vote at all. Moreover, her case is far more the exception than it is the rule.

A key factor which maintained stability during the post-Pinochet period was the economic growth which Chile experienced quite consistently, especially during the last decade. At the advent of the economic crisis, Chile’s boom seemed to continue unabated, surfing on the wave of the Chinese economy. However China has not been able to save the Latin American or Chilean economy from the impact of the crisis, which is now being reflected in a rapid slowdown. The reality is that many who look to the Bachelet years with a sense of nostalgia do so because the memories of the economic “success” which her government bring, and which formed the basis for the very limited miniscule social reforms which she implemented. However, the perspective for a Bachelet government in 2013 will not be the same, and her regime will be pushed into ever greater conflicts with the social majority. For the workers’ movement and left, this perspective is key to the breakthroughs which are possible and necessary over the next years. This in contrast to the shameful policy of the Chilean Communist Party leadership, which has chosen this moment, the worst imaginable, to finally fully throw in its lot with the Concertacion, which provoked a significant crisis and polarisation in its ranks, with some even leaving to join the ranks of the Marcel Claude campaign.

Bachelet and the Concertacion are preparing a new conjob. Her policy promises – which reflect the radicalisation in society and the pressure of the class struggle – such as for free education, a new constitution are intended to seduce voters, but by no means to be implemented. In this conjob, Bachelet will be facilitated by Chile’s anti-democratic electoral laws. In order to pass any significant legislation, a government requires a majority of either two-thirds, three fifths or four sevenths of congress, which Bachelet is almost certain not to achieve. Election promises such as free education, abortion rights, gay marriage etc, will thus be shelved with this as “justification”. A genuinely socialist government would not allow itself to be held in a straight-jacket by Pinochet’s laws, but would base itself on the mobilisation and power of the working class to defy capitalist law and transform society.

Many are speculating that Bachelet does not even want a majority which is so big as to expose her lack of will to act to change the situation! In the press in recent weeks, there have even been reports of a secret meeting between the President of the PS (part of the Concertacion) and a Senator from the Alianza, aimed at reaching a “deal” whereby Bachelet wins in the first round of Presidential elections, thus preventing an overly humiliating defeat for the right wing in a second round (if the official Alianza candidate can even get there!). The rotten leaders of the Concertacion need a “reliable” opposition, which makes the emergence of a real opposition force to its anti-worker policies more difficult to develop.

In the first explosions of the student movement, the hatred felt towards the political establishment was often translated into a crudely “anti-party” mood, elements of which can be seen in many countries from Europe to Latin America. While understanding this mood and its progressive origins in a rejection of the rotten parties of the past, revolutionary socialists also seek to overcome this mood, which represents an obstacle towards the development of the necessary political expression of the rising class struggle.

Rising tide of struggle

However, the lack of a mass political alternative has not stopped Chilean workers, oppressed and youth from developing their own opposition on the streets and in the workplaces. The student movement has brought numbers out on to the streets not seen since for over 20 years. It galvanised the opposition to the status quo throughout society and won support from all quarters of the working class. A new generation of activists has been steeled in struggle, facing the brutal repression of the infamous carbineros.

And the students have not been alone. In the South of the country, a massive rebellion saw authorities all-but expelled from entire regions, as communities united in strikes and blockades against price speculation and poor service provision. The significant industrial disputes of the last years are too numerous to mention, from precarious non-unionised workers in the retail sector, to the heaviest batallion of the Chilean proletariat, the copper workers.

And all of this has taken place despite the absence of any kind of lead being given from above in the main trade unions. Leaders of the once mighty CUT (main trade union federation) are now often as hated as the capitalist politicians among those in the front line of struggle. Only 3 months ago, port workers waged an inspirational struggle against attacks on wages and conditions. This struggle spread from one port to another, shutting down the sector across the country in a question of days, and the port workers do not even have a national union! As in many cases, workers and youth are struggling, and finding ways around the roadblocks erected by right-wing trade union leaders and the absence of a mass political voice of the working class.

Marcel Claude and the ‘Todos a la Moneda’ campaign

However, the Presidential election campaign of Marcel Claude, and the ‘Todos a la Moneda’ campaign in which Socialismo Revolucionario (CWI in Chile) is participating with members standing for both the Senate and regional councils, has opened the way for this absence of a political voice for the struggles of workers and youth to be overcome. The campaign seemingly emerged from nowhere, and has developed great momentum. Mass assemblies of the campaign have been organised throughout the country, with much participation by youth and student activists and organisations, indicating an important development of consciousness beyond a crude “anti-party” position and an acceptance of the need to engage in a political struggle. Indeed, among the youth, opinion polls show that Claude enjoys equal support to Bachelet among those below 24 years old! The campaign has galvanised support among all key sectors involved in struggle, from the tens of thousands in struggle against the unfair AFP private pensions system to the communities in struggle against poor provision of services, such as in Aysen.

Claude’s programme incorporates many of the key demands of these struggles, including the demand for free public education and healthcare, financed by progressive taxation and the re-nationalisation of copper and other natural resources. The campaign also demands the formation of a new Constituent Assembly, based on a process involving workers and young people’s organisations and social movements to draw up a new Constitution, replacing that of the Pinochet regime. Claude describes himself as an anti-capitalist, and correctly opposes any electoral deal with Bachelet, including any possible support to her in a second round against the traditional right wing.

However, while this programme represents a key step in the right direction and allows for a political struggle to develop to satisfy the demands of the workers and social movements, there remain important contradictions and insufficiencies within it. While defending anti-capitalism, Claude stops short of explaining the need for an alternative, socialist society. This is an important weakness which Socialismo Revolucionario (CWI) explains must be overcome.

Indeed, if the key proposals of the Claude campaign were implemented, they would pose the necessity of a struggle for system change. The nationalisation of copper to pay for free education and health for example, would require the nationalisation of the banks under democratic control in order to develop a plan for the economy and allow the investment of resources in increasing living standards and improving public services. In this sense, Marcel Claude’s support for only “control and regulation” of the banks cannot be sufficient. A revolutionary constituent assembly, based on workers’ democracy in workplaces, educational institutions and communities, could provide over a new “transition”, this time a revolutionary one, to do away with capitalism and complete the decades-long struggle of the Chilean working class for socialism, following its bloody defeat in 1973.

In order for this to be possible, a revolutionary approach much be consciously adopted by the left and social movements. As Patricio Guzman, Socialismo Revolucionario (CWI) member and candidate for Senator explained in a recent debate on TVN, Chile’s main national TV station, “what we need is to do away with capitalism and fight for a new socialist society”. Only such a perspective can lastingly satisfy the demands of Chilean workers and youth, as part of an international struggle for socialism throughout Latin America and the world.

Some polls give Claude’s presidential campaign up to 7% support. However it is now crucial to ensure that this important project is not simply wrapped up following the elections. Socialismo Revolucionario, along with others in the campaign – especially those involved in the “Workers Front for Marcel Claude” – argue that ‘Todos a la Moneda’ must be merely a first step. The "Workers’ Front for Marcel Claude" is an initiative taken by Socialismo Revolucionario (CWI) members, leading militant trade unionists and other left activists and groups, which seeks to mobilise and organise support for the campaign among workers in struggle, and inject a political class and socialist content into the campaign and its demands. It was launched in a rally of up to 1,000 people and clearly campaigns on the need to give continuity to the current project, which can serve as a springboard for the development of a political force to change Chilean society. A mass political force, a new party of workers, youth and the oppressed, with roots in every workplace and community, and a fighting socialist programme is on the order of the day. The Claude campaign will only succeed in genuinely transforming Chilean society and politics if it assists in such a development.

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November 2013