For three decades, the traditional right and the parties of the ‘Concertación’ co-governed in Chile and were also the main ‘opposition’. Both conglomerates agreed to manage and deepen the economic and social model of neoliberal capitalism that has its origin in the Pinochet dictatorship. Both coalitions are at the service of the interests of the ‘Large Economic Groups’. That is why these conglomerates have been called the “ruling duopoly”, or more simply, “the two rights.”
This party system was mortally wounded by the massive explosion in support of independents and parties to the left of the established political blocs in the elections for the Constitutional Convention, mayors, and governors which took place last weekend, May 15 and 16, 2021. They have resulted in an unexpected blow to the traditional political apparatuses at the service of the ruling class. These results, in some way, represent a continuation of the social uprising that began in October 2019. In this massive movement, millions of people took to the streets demanding social, labour, and democratic rights that were denied during decades of savage neoliberal capitalism. The social movement developed without the leadership of political parties or large trade unions. The revolt led by the working youth entered an ebb, although it was never really defeated, with the “Agreement for Peace and the New Constitution” in November 2019, supported by the great majority of the political blocs in the Congress. This agreement was a lifesaver for the right-wing government of Sebastián Piñera, together with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in Chile, in March 2020.
Since the last semester of the first government of Piñera (2010-14), the growth of the Chilean economy slowed down. Then with the second government of Bachelet (2014-18), and again with Piñera now, it stagnated.
Chile lacks a strong social security system. Private companies are given a privileged position inscribed into the constitution, inherited from the Pinochet dictatorship. Water and all the natural resources and basic services are in private hands.
There is great indebtedness of Chilean families which are increasingly impoverished. A few months ago a report from the Banco Central dealt with the question of the level of household debt and the health and social crisis. It stated that in 2020 household debt had increased to 75.4% of disposable income. Specifically, out of every 100 pesos of income in a family, more than 75 pesos are accounted for by debt. In contrast, income inequality is brutal. A 2013 investigation by economists from the University of Chile showed, based on data from the Internal Revenue Service (SII) for the period 2005-2010, that the income of individuals belonging to the richest 1% is 30.5% of total income. And 0.01% of the population, about 300 families, account for 11% of the total income.
Inequality, permanent exploitation, low wages, and miserable pensions largely explain the social explosion of 2019, which was sparked by an issue apparently as minor as a 30-peso hike in the Santiago metro. Added to this, the police repression that was broadcast on television and social networks was brutal.
With the Piñera government on the brink of collapse, the political caste devised a salvage operation. On November 15, 2019, Congress announced that it had reached an Agreement for Peace and the New Constitution. The purpose was to channel the movement into the political institutions, as it had lost control of the mass movement on the streets, which faced repression, and there was the growing network of self-convened territorial assemblies and a national strike.
The agreement made in Congress was full of traps. A plebiscite put to the vote whether or not people wanted to keep or change the Constitution. Another vote was also to decide whether to discuss a new constitution in a “mixed convention” (i.e. half its members appointed by congress and half elected by a popular vote) or in a Convention with members all elected by universal vote. It is not a question of a sovereign Constituent Assembly since there are issues that cannot be discussed by the Convention, such as the International Free Trade Agreements that tie the Chilean social-economic model to the interests of multinationals and the industrialised capitalist countries. In addition, a two-thirds majority was required for it to approve any proposal for the new constitution. In other words, a third of the Convention could block the approval of any article of the new Constitution or approve the operating rules of the Convention.
Initially, the 155 members of the Convention had to be chosen according to the same criteria that Congress is chosen, through the highly discredited political parties. However, social pressure from a movement that rejected the Agreement and was very active in the streets, by then, forced the parliament to introduce modifications facilitating the participation of independents and their allies on lists. In addition, it incorporated the criteria of parity of men and women in the election and a guaranteed representation of 17 seats for indigenous peoples.
The result of these elections has been an earthquake for the political system. The predictions of the pollsters have been completely contradicted by the facts. The right-wing and, in general, the traditional political parties have received much lower votes than expected.
The right was united in a single list against multiple opposition lists. However, it was completely defeated and failed to win a third of Convention – which was its objective to block radical proposals. The reverse has happened, and the left has the voting capacity to block proposals from the right. The forces of political reaction have shot themselves in the foot.
A strong realignment and re-composition of political forces are underway. The big winner was the level of abstention, as only 44 % participated. The big losers in the Constitutional Convention are the traditional right (Vamos Chile) which managed to elect 37 members and did not reach the third needed as a blocking mechanism. The former coalition of the “center-right”, Concertación, elected a mere 25 representatives. The Christian Democratic Party barely managed to elect two representatives. The Socialist Party, part of this bloc, is the one that came out the best in the general debacle and elected 15 elected representatives.
There was a large vote by independents and women. The big winners were the independents on the left, especially those from the Lista del Pueblo, gaining 25 members of the Convention who are the most leftwing of those elected. In addition, there are 33 other independents in other minor groupings. These 58 independent representatives surpass all the other coalitions and exceed a third of the Constitutional Convention.
The possibility is there for this Constitutional Convention, which was designed with curtailed powers as a chamber for the reform of the Pinochet Constitution, to become, in practice, a Constituent Assembly reflecting the mass social mobilizations.
It is a good result, overall, but it would be wrong to underestimate the obstacles. The traditional sectors on the right, and the Concertacion, will try to block any radical proposals.
The left-wing coalition brought together the Communist Party, the Social Green Regionalist Federation, and the Broad Front (Frente Amplio). But that is the same Broad Front that with the signature of Gabriel Boric, who now intends to be a presidential candidate, signed the November 2019 Agreement that saved Piñera. He has also voted in favour of the tightening of repressive laws, such as the “anti-hood law”, that today has resulted in thousands of young people being prosecuted and imprisoned for their participation in the social protests.
Everything now open
The left is pleased with the unexpectedly good result in the Constitutional Convention and there were also good results for the reformist left in the municipal elections. The traditional parties that have managed the Chilean neoliberal state during the last three decades performed better, but they were pushed back. Although the Communist Party only got two mayors elected, the results were significant. In the Recoleta district, in Santiago, the Communist Party mayor and presidential candidate of the party, Daniel Jadue, obtained more than 64% of the votes. In the emblematic municipality of Central Santiago, the Communist Party candidate, Irací Hassler, defeated the current mayor of the right. It is symbolic of the change in Chile that for the first time there is a Communist Party mayor in Santiago.
Everything is now open on the political level after a decades-long institutional blockage. It is a consequence of the popular uprising which gripped the country. These elections are an indirect result of the gigantic Chilean social movement. The results of the independent candidates, in particular, show the possibility which exists for building a political alternative of workers and social movements, with an action programme that has a socialist perspective. This can become the axis of a united front of workers and the masses.
The popular rebellion from October 2019 onwards, was the expression of a cultural change and greater political awareness. It was a great setback for conservative ideas and an advance for aspirations of the Chilean people to transform society. That revolutionary movement that gripped society has now found electoral expression by cornering the system of political parties detested by the majority. Distrust of the system is ingrained now in Chilean society. The social mobilization will resume its course to accompany and pressure the debates on the new Constitution.