Chile: Polarisation, Party Crisis and Prospects for the Left

Analysis of the likely outcome of the Chilean Presidential election. The left should win but the prospect of low turnout in poorer, radical neighbourhoods is a potential wild card.

9 min read

If you were to flick through the [digital] pages of El Desconcierto, one of many Chilean alternative, online dailies, one debate would immediately stand out: should we vote? That might seem surprising from the outside, given what is at stake. This is, after all, no ‘two sides of the same coin’ election. However, it is on this question, as much as any other, which the country’s polarised December 19th second round presidential election rides. First, before returning to the issue of turnout, however, we need an understanding of how exactly the first round played out.

Round One

The first round of Chile’s elections took place on November 21. They featured a historically crowded field of candidates ranging from the quasi-fascist, Pinchet-apologist José Antonio Kast on the right to ex-student leader Gabriel Boric and the quixotic communist dissident Eduardo Artés on the left. Between them lay two centrist candidates – Yasna Provoste and Sebastián Sichel – a right-leaning populist, Franco Parisi, and another leftist, former Socialist Party senator Marco Enríquez-Ominami. All of these seven, with the exception of Artés, would go on to win more than 7% of the vote and everyone else except Enríquez-Ominami more than 10%.

Position Coalition / Party Ideology Candidate Vote Share
1 Christian Social Front Far-Right José Antonio Kast 27.91%
2 Apruebo Dignidad Left Gabriel Boric 25.83%
3 Party of the People Populist Franco Parisi 12.80%
4 Chile - We Can Do More Centre-Right Sebastián Sichel 12.79%
5 New Social Pact Centre-Left Yasna Provoste 11.61%
6 Progressive Party Left Marco Enríquez-Ominami 7.61%
7 Patriotic Union Far-Left Eduardo Artés 1.47%

It had become clear in the run-up to the election that Kast and Boric would make it through to the second round and indeed they did, with room to spare. What was expected in the weeks leading up to the vote, however, was nonetheless striking from a longer-term perspective. The fourth and fifth places were held by the coalitions which have dominated Chilean politics since the 1990 transition to democracy. They had held both spots of every runoff during this period. In the first round, they had only combined for less than 70% of the vote once [in 2017 when they won a joint 58%]. In 2021, they held just ¼ of support. Neither will appear on the second ballot.

These two groupings both have their roots in Pinochet’s dictatorship. The New Social Pact, joining together the Socialist Party and the Christian Democrats among others, formed as the Democratic Alliance in the 80’s to oppose authoritarian rule before changing their name to the Concentration of Parties for Democracy in time for the first free elections. They won every vote from 1989 until 2010 and returned to power in 2014, combining neoliberal economics with small boosts in welfare payments and ‘pro-democracy’ reforms. On the other side, Chile We Can Do More is led by the Independent Democrat Union (UDI), the official ideological heir of Pinochetismo, and National Renewal, a more business-friendly, smiling right wing force. The latter is the party of current president Sebastián Piñera, who was also president from 2010-2014, the only decisively right-wing (with the Christian Democrats a bulwark of the centre) election winner since 1958.

The collapse of this political duopoly has everything to do with the Chilean rebellion of 2019-2020. Sparked by a small rise in the metro fare, the movement quickly spiraled into a generalised uprising against inequality. In an attempt to quell the unrest, Piñera called troops into the streets. However, he was defeated by a movement which drew at least 1/3 of the country out to protest. In an attempt to guide the situation into a more acceptable, institutional outlet, a referendum on a new constitution was promised. Yet the movement fought on until March, 2020, dispersed only by the might of Coronavirus. In October, 2020, Chileans voted overwhelmingly in favour of this new ‘Magna Carta.’ Months later, they elected those who would write it – an election dominated by the left.

The collapse of Chile's political duopoly has everything to do with the rebellion of 2019-20.

In this context of extreme upheaval, the traditional political forces struggled to articulate themselves, opening the terrain to newer movements, augmenting a party crisis in which traditional parties lost their taken for granted function and capacity to represent their social bases. Thirty years in the making, as a trend of political moderation and professionalisation played out in ways not unfamiliar to what has occurred on in many other countries, the uprising, and the displacement of traditional political activities and patterns it brought on, sped up this decomposition rapidly. The hollowed out parties could no longer hegemonise the votes of those on whom they relied. In their wake came novel forces on both right and left.

The hollowed out parties could no longer hegemonise the votes of those on whom they relied. In their wake came novel forces on both right and left.

On the left, despite significant differences, the Broad Front, a grouping of Podemos-esque parties which emerged mainly out of the 2011-2012 student protests, and the Communist Party managed to join together to fight in elections for the constitutional convention. They soon extended this alliance, Apruebo Dignidad, to the presidential elections as well. They quickly surpassed their traditional opponents on the left in the polls. This was a lead they never lost, even when a hard-fought and controversial primary saw the more-moderate Gabriel Boric win a surprise victory over popular, Communist mayor Daniel Jadue.

The surge to José Antonio Kast and his Republican Party was less expected, although equally a result of broader instability. Kast had run in 2017 as an independent, taking only 8% of the vote [the Broad Front had won 20% in the same election]. Many thought he would fare little better in 2021. Then came the nomination of Sebastián Sichel, an independent who had served in Bachelet’s Socialist government before defecting, as the right-wing standard bearer. Sichel’s nomination was a clear nod to the demonstrations of the years before. Relatively multicultural, socially moderate, and economically pragmatic, he was seen by many conservatives as their best chance at holding onto power amidst a shifting social scenario.

Amongst the hard-right, however, there was significant disquiet. This was particularly true of supporters of the UDI. As stated above, the UDI is a radically reactionary party. Its roots lay explicitly in the Pinochet dictatorship, in which many of its leading members served. Ideologically, its philosophical father was Jaime Guzman, a Pinochet apparatchik deeply inspired by Francoist Spain. Kast, a misogynistic, racist neo-fascist who celebrates Pinochet’s regime, was a much better fit for the UDI, of which he used to be a member, than Sichel ever could be. Voters began to slowly shift his way. Then came the nervous politicians, abandoning their own coalition’s nominee to follow their base. Soon Sichel’s campaign had effectively collapsed, clearing the way for Kast.

Perhaps the greatest surprise of all, however, at least for the talking-heads on television, was the result for Franco Parisi. The American-educated commercial engineer, in addition to winning about 13% overall, took the largest vote share in the northern region of Antofagasta and came a very close second in two others. Parisi had run once previously, in 2013, when he had captured just over 10% of the vote. However, he had also run this campaign entirely from the United States, fearing a court judgment against him over unpaid alimony should he return to his homeland. An energetic and irreverent populist who took aim at the political establishment, his appeal came through nonetheless.

Ultimately, this has left Chile with a stark choice. Kast is dedicated to opposing any extension of rights for women or LGBTQI+ people. He opposes proletarian migration1 and remains a dedicated free-marketeer. Boric, though less radical than his internal opponent Jadue, is nonetheless the polar opposite. Promising to immediately legalise abortion and gay marriage, as well as push through a host of measures to benefit the oppressed Indigenous peoples of Chile, he has also called for a nationalised health service, an expansion of council housing, and new taxes on landlords and the wealthy. In a strong presidential system where only the executive can introduce many forms of legislation, whoever wins will have a pronounced impact on the country’s immediate future.

Chile has been left a stark choice. Kast is dedicated to opposing any extension of rights for women or LGBTQI+ people. He opposes proletarian migration and remains a dedicated free-marketeer. Boric, is the polar opposite.

Round Two

So, what can we expect out of the second round? In the unpredictable world of parliamentary politics, nothing is certain. However, we can begin by quickly tabulating the ideological results from voters in the first round:

Tendency Vote Share
Right 40.70%
Populist 12.80%
Left 46.50%

As one might guess, to many it seems that it is Parisi’s voters, should turnout [only 47% in round one] remain stable, who will decide this election. Initial official opinion, therefore, put Kast as the favourite. Parisi, an anti-immigrant militant ideologically, is, after all, certainly a rightist. His voters, however, are much more complex. Initial polling, although contradictory, has them breaking in Boric’s favour. Given that Kast would require a very strong win amongst Parisi voters to offset the right’s first round deficit, this bodes poorly for him. It is quite likely that it was Parisi’s brash style and outsider status which, at least partially, drew his supporters to him. His was a vote of protest, of disaffection. Even if they are anti-immigrant, which many doubtlessly are, Kast’s arch-establishment personality contrasts poorly with the bearded, tatooed Boric.

It should also not be supposed that other ideological voters are indeed secured within their camps. That Sichel won over 12%, even after mass defection to the Kast campaign, seems to indicate that at least some centre-right voters are uncomfortable with the winner’s reactionary politics. Given the six point gap already separating the ideological right and left, Kast would need to hold almost all of them onside if he were to have a hope of winning, even with the support of Parisi voters. Boric, on the other hand, seems to be benefiting decidedly from Kast’s effect on the left. The ex-Concentration, despite being almost pathologically committed to moderation, has thrown their support near wholeheartedly behind him in an effort to block what they see as a real threat to democracy. Even the Christian Democrats, highly uncomfortable with the Broad Front’s social agenda, have given him their official and unqualified support.

The election, though closer than many would have liked, seems to be Boric’s for the taking. However, there remains a last wild card: turnout. Boric, despite being of the left and a former protest leader, is deeply unpopular amongst a segment of those who revolted in 2019-20. Already cast by some as the “hipster candidate,” with all the same baggage of bourgeois gentrification and trite virtue signaling that such a title would carry here, his party’s decision to back President Piñera’s “Accords for Peace,” which, in addition to promises of a new constitution, also included new laws severely curtailing the right to protest, has further alienated him from the extra-parliamentary left. Given that the left won over 2/3 of the constitutional convention seats, it is clear from the result that he is a weak candidate and that the parties backing them are failing to mobilise effectively.

The election should be Boric's for the taking. However, there remains a wild card: turnout. It is clear from the first round result that he is a weak candidate and that the parties backing him are failing to mobilise effectively.

The trend is much greater than merely Boric however. For decades radical Chilean sociologists have been identifying a growing opposition between “society” and “politics,” or between the people and their social movements on one side and the parties and the state on the other. Student unions, hugely influential among Chilean youth, have repeatedly called for abstention in previous elections, the secondary school movement ACES the most prominent among them. In some poorer neighbourhoods, the barricade, not voting, is often seen as the mark of both political progress and political participation. While calls have not come as readily for organised abstention this time around, these overarching trends nonetheless helped produce the low turnout in the first round. They will not be overcome in the second.

In some poorer neighbourhoods, the barricade, not voting, is often seen as the mark of both political progress and political participation.

The question thus turns on participation. Will enough leftists and youngsters turn up for Boric? What of Christian Democrats, uneasy with promises of gay marriage and legalised abortion? Will the threat of Kast be enough to mobilise them? Or will Boric’s own Communist partners be enough to scare the moderate right into Kast’s camp? The election, indeed, seems to be Boric’s to win. However, there are doubtlessly additional surprises in store.

  1. This question of the specificity “proletarian” or “popular” migration is significant. Chilean neoliberalism in general, and the mining sector in particular, has relied on attracting very significant numbers of professionals from outside the country. As Martín Arboleda writes, “Santiago de Chile, in particular, has become one of the most attractive cities in Latin America for the highly skilled workers, financiers, and executive personnel of the mining industry. Many transnational firms and contractors have settled in this bustling, modern city.” It is emphatically not these migrants Kast is attacking. As Arboleda also notes, mining in Chile is also decisively reliant on migrant and racialised labour. 


Charlie Ebert

Charlie Ebert is a radical and a writer. He is currently based in Santiago, Chile.