Reflections on the Chilean Election

With Boric’s resounding victory, the Chilean far right have been kept out of office. But legislative limits, and conformist cabinet appointments, mean that there may well be little else to celebrate.

18 min read

In the end, the dangers of a José Antonio Kast victory were greatly exaggerated. As Chileans headed to the polls on December 19, pundits, both domestic and international, predicted a nail-biter. Instead, left winger Gabriel Boric delivered the second largest landslide of the past quarter century, winning by nearly a 12% margin. The result was emphatic. Kast’s blend of pinochetismo and awkward, alt-right virtue-signalling, be it calling for the scrapping of the National Women’s Service or for the building of an effectively symbolic trench on the country’s northern border, crash landed. While the right retained the traditional 40% base it has held since the dictatorship’s end, it failed to expand upon it. On the other hand, the parliamentary-democratic forces, despite significant tensions dating back a decade, showed surprising unity against a man who proudly declared: “if Pinochet were alive, he’d vote for me.”

Now that the dust has settled, it is time to take stock of what has occurred. Even for those critical of the left electoral project, the result was undeniably welcome. If nothing else, Kast’s promise to violently wield the machinery of state to crush extra-parliamentary opposition of all kinds represented a real threat to extra parliamentary organising and challenge. Moreover, even the most hardened anarchist will breathe a sigh of relief at having dodged the possibility of concerted attacks on women, racialised peoples (such as Indigenous people and migrants), the LGBTQ+ community, and the working class, among many others.

Kast’s promise to violently wield the machinery of state to crush extra-parliamentary opposition of all kinds represented a real threat to extra parliamentary organising and challenge.

Equally, however, it would take a near-fanatical belief in bourgeois democracy to read Boric’s triumph as heralding a new social democracy, “radical” or otherwise. Structural, ideological, and legislative impediments, alongside a whole host of other limits, seem set to ensure that any expectation of a social democratic settlement will be, at best, naïve. If a sober reading from a revolutionary perspective will recognise the importance of Boric’s victory (or, at the very least, the defeat of Kast), an honest electoralist reading likewise demands recognition that a Boric presidency will, in all likelihood, change very little. To understand that this entails great risk for the left, electoral or otherwise, one need only look to Brazil, where lacklustre leftism, and a resulting lack of support, left the door upon to a resurgent right’s antidemocratic attacks.Of course, the Brazilian left were not defeated honestly; but the point is that the limits of the PT put a sharp block on any potential to, in Poulantzas’s words (drawing on the experience of Allende), arouse the “broad popular movement [that] constitutes a guarantee against the reaction of the enemy”.

However, these limitations aside, Boric’s triumph offers two further general reasons for the left to celebrate, beyond keeping Kast out of office. First, the left has clearly ended its political isolation. After extra-parliamentary forces led the protests of 2019-2020, formal representation was won in the May 2021 Constitutional Convention and December General elections. This clearly represents a society at odds with its traditional ruling class.

Second, Kast conceded without a peep. Whilst in the short-term this is hardly surprising, in the (only very slightly) longer durée, it represents a major shift from the sabre-rattling and coup-threats of the 1990s and early 2000s. It is clear that the great majority of the establishment, in both its military and party-political manifestations, is comfortable within electoral democracy. While questions of insubordination, particularly amongst the paramilitary carabineros, remain, it is remarkable how solidly parliamentarism has solidified itself in one of Latin America’s newest democracies. Of course, it is impossible to say what the reaction would have been had the election been closer; the sheer scale of the margin rendered any vote-rigging allegations (à la Trump in the US or Fujimori in Peru) a nonstarter. Nonetheless, it is clearly welcome that, for the time being, the establishment, anti-democratic right remains relatively dormant, if not dead.

There are cheering aspects of the Presidential result, especially negatively, in Kast’s defeat. However, a more detailed look at what happened on election night suggests significant reasons for concern.

Legislative Gridlock

Chile, like much of Latin America, operates with a bicameral legislature loosely modelled on the United States, with regional senate seats, elected on a staggered basis, combined with a semi-proportional chamber of deputies. Here the presidential landslide was not quite reflected in parliamentary outcomes.

In the chamber of deputies, the left, defined at its broadest, won narrowly: 79 of 155 seats. The right took 68, the populist People’s Party 6, and a single, avowedly centrist independent is also part of the mix. This leaves the left with 51% of the seats (from about 50% of the electorate) compared to 55.5% of the presidential votes. The breakdown of these results on an individual party level differs even more from the presidential outcome. The traditional centre-left, represented (in this election, at least – more on this later) by the New Social Pact (NPS), captured 37 seats, equal to Boric’s Apruebo Dignidad. In the presidential first round, by contrast, Boric had won more than twice as many votes as the NPS’s Yasna Provoste. Establishment parties held up even more noticeably on the right, where the traditional right in the Chile Podemos Más coalition, captured 53 seats to Kast’s Social Christian Front’s 15—again, despite Kast performing more than twice as well as his right-wing opponent in the presidential race.

We can read, from this, two key observations on the state of Chile’s electoral coalitions. First, on a local level, where constituency MPs are individuated from their partisan whole, and party machines are of greater importance, voters were more inclined to support the mainstream parties, although these parties did fall beneath 50% of the combined vote. In the legislative elections, the machines of the established parties served as a qualified counter-tendency to the broad party crisis I discussed in my last piece. Second, the solidity of the established parties is much stronger on the right than on the left. Ultimately, Kast—a defector from the old school right—ran a personalist campaign, with little broader infrastructure and a thin candidate list. On the other hand, Apruebo Dignidad, which combines the age-old Communist Party with the social movement-based Broad Front, was able to provide both the grassroots work and the breadth of personalities necessary to secure a decent, if unspectacular, result.

One can rightly suppose that this suggests long-term parliamentary difficulties for the far right. In common with his contemporaries on the global hard right, Kast eschews traditional party-building activities in favour of a direct approach. While a section of the mainstream right trends close to him in terms of beliefs, an institutional limit remains. Ultimately, his Social Christian Front is unlikely to become a truly significant force at every level of government due to a lack of organisation, if not a lack of relatively popular ideas. That said, their capacity to continue to offer strong presidential candidates should not be underestimated. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front has similarly struggled in legislative elections (winning just 13.2% of the first round vote in 2017, compared to a presidential 21.3%). This has not stopped them from remaining a major force in elections to the executive.

Finally, it must be said that the parliamentary arithmetic paints a dire picture for Boric. Following the vote, the president-elect amplified his attempts to reach out to the centre/centre-left NPS, hoping to strengthen his position in congress, ultimately leading to the fracturing of the NPS over the question of whether to enter Boric’s government. The left of the NPS, under the new banner of “Democratic Socialism”, entered the governing agreement;1 the Christian Democrats dissented. This leaves the government in control of just 74 of the 155 seats in the Chamber of Deputies; four seats off a majority. The situation is even worse in the Senate, where a staggered electoral system means that the government will hold just 18 of the 50 seats. Getting legislation through the lower chamber is likely to prove extremely difficult; getting it through the upper chamber, where the right hold half the seats, will almost certainly prove impossible.

Getting legislation through the lower chamber is likely to prove extremely difficult; getting it through the upper chamber, where the right hold half the seats, will almost certainly prove impossible.

As such, we should expect nothing in the way of sweeping transformations from the incoming government, even if they were to want them (which seems, on Boric’s part, increasingly doubtful). The likelihood is that almost nothing at all will be passed. absent significant social movements, which have previously forced minor, though insufficient, legislative concessions even under right-wing governments. Senate terms are for 8 years, which means that the next chance for the left to capture control of the chamber will coincide with 2025’s presidential vote. Added to this, the mainstream right’s unity in the legislature tends to be strong, meaning that picking off even one or two senators to vote with the government will prove extremely difficult. All this would seem to reaffirm the sense that Boric’s victory will have been more important for having prevented a Kast government, rather than for any positive outcome in its own right.

The Coalition Cabinet

As referenced above, immediately following the election, Gabriel Boric redoubled his efforts to convince sections of the mainstream left (broadly defined) to support him. Whether his endeavours were successful can be judged by the January 21st cabinet announcement. We learnt that, of a 24-member cabinet, only 11 members will come from the parties of his Apruebo Dignidad coalition (seven from Boric’s Broad Front, and four from the Communist Party and their green allies). Five will be independents—one of whom chaired his campaign and can thus be considered a relatively reliable leftist—and seven will be drawn from establishment parties (four Socialists, and one each from their three Democratic Socialism coalition partners). More important than the raw numbers, however, is the particular distribution of offices. Of the four most important offices—the Interior, Exterior, Defence, and Treasury (hacienda) ministries—not one will be held by official members of the Boric’s coalition parties. While Izkia Siches, the aforementioned campaign chair, will take on the Interior Ministry, the three other ministries are each controlled de facto by the Socialist Party.

That this is a disaster should be immediately clear. Despite public claims to the contrary, it is evident that all that backroom bargaining led to major concessions by the president-elect. And things only get worse upon closer examination. Most notable is Mario Marcel, appointed as the equivalent of the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, a neoliberal economist who has cycled through a series of jobs in the public and private sectors for decades, earning accolade after accolade from the financial press. As director of budgets in the early 2000s, he pushed hard for a 1% structural budget surplus. To have him in charge of the public purse strings seems certain to obstruct any push for deep reform, particularly on redistributive (i.e. tax-and-spend) initiatives.

Despite public claims to the contrary, it is evident that all that backroom bargaining over cabinet positions led to major concessions by the president-elect.

Boric has also made clear that he plans to break from the model of presidential protagonismo (roughly: active leadership) which he detected in the current Piñera government, preferring instead to leave greater decision-making power to individual ministers. While potentially laudable in the abstract, in the concrete this effectively affirms that the general direction of government initiative will not be one of rupture, but rather continuity. How this compromise-driven governing arrangement will play out over the long-run, of course, remains to be seen. A reasonable (and increasingly likely) worse-case scenario would see the total absorption of once-alternative left-wing forces into the mainstream, leaving electoral dissent open for the far right to capture and exploit. Even a best-case scenario would see only the passing of a handful of mild welfare reforms along with the maintenance of the independence of the left. Neither outcome seems particularly brilliant, to say the least.

Relations with the Constitutional Convention

Whilst elections to the legislature and presidency have received significant attention, these bodies no longer hold exclusive power in Chile. What is evolving in reality is a dual institutional power, one part of which is invested in the left-dominated Constitutional Convention. This body has already been sparring with other elected branches over the scope of its remit, frequently opining on non-structural issues traditionally viewed as outside its purview (for instance, a pardon for all those arrested in the 2019-2020 protests).

In the event of a Kast victory, this would have set the executive and the convention on a collision course, with the likelihood of severe repercussions. With Boric in the presidency, the scenario is very different. There is now a path open for de facto legislating from the Convention to intensify and the vote of the environmental committee of the Convention has recently to nationalise mines is suggestive here. This would offer a way out of the deadlock for those hoping for left-reform in that it would bypass the legislative gridlock while, as an added bonus, embeding any legislative gains as constitutional guarantees, which are much more difficult to repeal.

There is now a path open for de facto legislating from the Constitutional Convention to intensify. This would offer a way out of the legislative gridlock for those hoping for left-reform.

The left has the votes in the Constitutional Convention to achieve this, especially now that it seems that a simple majority will suffice to bring an article to a subsidiary plebiscite, effectively eliminating the legislated 2/3 quorum. Whether they will pursue this line of attack, however, is much more questionable. To the right, it would smack of a-legality, and as such is almost certain to draw a backlash. In the aftermath of the Rechazo movement in favour of a no vote on a new constitution, the hard right has developed a street grassroots, which, if altogether minoritarian, is nonetheless far superior to any it has possessed in decades. This grassroots would likely be activated in opposition to any constitutional legislating.

The prospect of the Convention initiating “legislation” or being used to do so, in turn, bears with it the greatest risk of destabilisation from the right. The centre-left, which traces its roots to pro-democracy moderates during the Pinochet era, is likely to feel very uncomfortable with this outcome. Where Boric himself, as well as the convention, stands on the issue remains unknown. It is also impossible to estimate the potential size, breadth, and intensity of any right wing street movement against such a move. From Boric’s perspective, pursuing such a strategy would be a major gamble. Given his caution thus far, it would be wise to bet against his encouraging such an outcome. However, should the Convention take the lead, his own base, alongside the left-grassroots, is likely to apply significant pressure for him to fall behind it.

Compromise, Protest, and Memories of Allende

All of this poses a question: why so much compromise? The left, all in all, is in an extremely strong position—stronger than they have been since the times of Allende. They could very possibly combine limited presidential decrees with constitutional strong-arming tactics to significantly reform the country, and, alongside this, there may be substantial gains outside the parliamentary realm. The chances of them doing so, however, are slight. Much of the caution underpinning this springs precisely from the memory of the Allende period, alongside the apparently increasing sociological restraints on left electoralism more generally, which we will come to.

The left could combine limited presidential decrees with constitutional strong-arming tactics to significantly reform the country. The chances of them doing so, however, are slight.

The question of what went wrong under Allende is probably the most fraught and contested historical debate in Chile. We don’t have time to examine it in detail here, but a brief review will suffice for now.

Broadly speaking, two camps emerge within the left. The first, popular with the extra-parliamentary movement and far left, argues that Allende failed to push forward at a sufficient pace, whilst also underestimating the danger of the right. By the midpoint of the Allende era, the on-the-ground movement had far surpassed the government in radicalism. Factories in their thousands, alongside agricultural land and housing, were being seized directly by the working-class. The working class had set up independent distribution networks and established alternative assemblies meant to serve as grassroots sites of power. What’s more—as documented in the excellent, semi-contemporary documentary, The Battle of Chile—many were clear-eyed about the threat of a coup, demanding the government distribute arms so that they could protect themselves if necessary.

The government, however, feared further instability; it also had faith in Chile’s democratic institutions, widely perceived to be the most stable in Latin America. The army, rooted in Prussian formalism, was perceived as largely apolitical. There was a deep-rooted belief, especially within the Communist Party (which during this period sat to the right of their coalition partner Socialists) that a gradualist, consensual path to socialism must be pursued. Armed revolution was perceived by them, in the context of 1973 Chile, as both ahistorical and suicidal. Chile under Allende, they would argue, was a world away from Batista’s Cuba. The chance for a peaceful transition was there. This was Allende’s famous socialism “with the taste of empanadas and red wine,” an idyllic road of widening consumption and piecemeal nationalisations culminating in a peaceful, egalitarian future.

We know that the consensual, parliamentary path to Chilean socialism in the early 1970s failed, for the radical left this can be explained by too great a commitment to the consensual, parliamentary and constitutional, for moderates, by contrast, the problem could be said to be too great a commitment to socialism without the necessary preconditions in place. If the radicals believe that Allende moved too slowly, too indecisively, insufficiently aware of the threats facing him until it was too late, the moderates believe it was his unilateralism, absent a sufficient base, which doomed him. This view, particularly popular among 1970s and 80s eurocommunists and their ideological fellow travellers as well as those holding analogous positions today, points out that Allende won only 36% of the vote in 1970. Popular Unity controlled under 1/3 of both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate at the time of that election, rising to around 40% by 1973. The majority of the population simply was not onside. Trying to force through a relatively rapid transition to socialism in this context, aside from being logistically difficult, constituted a virtual death wish.

At the same time, they point out, in 1970 the Christian Democrats were controlled by the party’s left and fresh off a campaign of land redistribution and social reform. The groupings, left and centre, had captured between them nearly 2/3 of the vote. A path of compromise and inclusion should have been followed, isolating the hard right and opening the door to a long-term, stable and progressive path. It was, in fact, exactly this observation of Chilean events that directly informed the Italian Communist Party’s decision to reach its own ‘Historic Compromise’ with Christian Democracy.

It seems likely that many on Boric’s side are making exactly such a reading now. Electorally speaking, they lack the force to push through major reform, even if their ambition already falls far short of Allende’s. However, alongside all of what was the New Social Pact, they would constitute a clear majority. They appear, at the moment, to feel it better and safer to follow a path of progressive stability, rather than one of radical rupture. In this, they are almost certainly drawing on the lessons of Allende.

Boric appears to feel it better and safer to follow a path of progressive stability, rather than one of radical rupture. In this, he is almost certainly drawing on the moderate rather than radical reading of the lessons of Allende.

Their base, anecdotally, does not seem as keen. And, even more so than in the 1970s, the parliamentary left do not control their voters. At least 3.7 million Chileans, according to the government’s own estimation, participated in the protests of 2019-2020. These were protests intended to cause exactly such a rupture. While Boric’s 4.6 million second-round votes constitute an even larger constituency than those who protested in 2019 and 2020, the demographic crossover between the two will be enormous. In all likelihood, and by all indications, these individuals are far more personally tied to the ideals of the revolt than to those of Boric’s presidential campaign. That they, or even the Constitutional Convention, could follow an ideological path separate to that of the government is very possible. This, after all, happened even in the 70s, in a context of mass party membership and extreme loyalty among party militants to Salvador Allende.

There are also, however, broader, more structural, and less particular phenomena at play. The revolution/reform debate has animated the left for generations. Several key lines of attack, each growing and evolving over time, have posited their own rationale arguing for the basic unreformability of the state. Some have pointed towards the state as independent actor, with institutionalised interests, rather than empty vessel to be guided at will. Others have structured their positions around the incompatibility of the private control of capital with the construction of a path towards socialism. Still others saw the self-understanding of the social democratic party as unstable, what was a class party outside government forced to adopt the ‘national interest’ when in office , thereby rendering it into little more than disciplinarian of the working class.

Each of these schemas, however, share a base presumption: that the politician or government in question will wish to attempt to confront capital, in some way, and enact a left-wing agenda. It is for this reason that Allende was long taken as the case par excellence for the debate. However, in the neoliberal era, a second, more prominent phenomenon seems to be at play. For reasons perhaps beyond the scope of this article, contemporary politicians of the left, including the hard left, seem to lose that very will to fight upon their entry into parliaments and, especially, governments. In Europe, this was exemplified by SYRIZA, but also includes the likes of Podemos, now content to prop up a centre-left government, and Melenchon, following his national-populist turn. In Latin America, the picture is slightly more complex. Nonetheless, governments—from Lula in Brazil to AMLO in Mexico to Ortega II in Nicaragua—have won on radical platforms (the latter two by landslides) before voluntarily turning towards the centre. We might question, then, whether the presumption of what we could term the ‘classical’ Marxist state theory and strategy debates of the 1970s and 1980s—that politicians of the left want to implement radical reforms, but are prevented from doing so by external forces and structures—actually holds.

It is likely that the cause of this phenomenon is complex, a result of multiple moving parts. We could look towards the structural, ‘corrective’ role of ratings agencies, which, given the general indebtedness of the contemporary nation-state, can bankrupt a country with the stroke of a pen. Geopolitically, the disappearance of the Soviet Union has left radical governments isolated. The hegemonic nature of technocracy within economics also comes to mind, as does what could be identified as the fracturing and hollowing-out of cultural politics. Each conspire against the emergence of leftist thought within the state form. They have begotten a gradualism which seems to find even reform too much of a pipe dream.

What is clear, though, is that Boric, constrained by these broader trends as well as his own (and much of the electoral left’s) reading of Chile’s particular crisis in the Allende era, is unlikely to take a radical path. The next four years in Chile are, generally speaking, likely to look very much like the last four: limited change combined with rising social tensions and an increasingly militant street movement. There are popular needs and expectations, which are extremely unlikely to be met by the government. There are contradictions that cannot easily be resolved.

It is this last feature which offers up the most to speculation, as well as to hope. The street movement has seen flashes of rebirth, though it has yet to fully reconstitute itself in the wake of coronavirus. As restrictions ease, and failures by the government mount, it is likely to reawaken. In what context this reawakening occurs, over what specific cause, its relative strength and militancy, as well as the government’s reaction to it, will be the main terrain of political struggle in the coming years. Whilst the prospect of revolution seems far off, it should not be entirely discounted. The prospect of severe unrest, after all, hangs once more on the horizon.

It is, of course, always possible that these contradictions, and their associated unrest, will beget a radical, right-authoritarian response, or even a technocratic one. The forces of outward reaction—those opposed to, or perhaps looking beyond, the proceduralism that defines electoral politics—have thus far remained silent. This pre-inaugural silence is a world away from Allende’s experience in 1970, when the right attempted to prevent him ever coming to office through a series of (US-backed) pieces of parliamentary gymnastics. However, while capital does not face the prospect of mass nationalisations in Chile today, it does demand stability. Chile’s economic elites are highly reliant on the country’s outsized role as a regional base for the Latin American offices of multinationals, as well as on the exportation of primary commodities. There is a long-running context of severe instability, with all the related difficulties in international trade and financial flows that follow. If a Kast (or someone even more right wing) were to take the initiative, via extra-parliamentary reaction, and attempt to overthrow Boric, it is conceivable, if unlikely, that capital would lend its support. But then, as referenced above, the Allende government was fatally sure of the stability of Chile’s democratic structures. We would be wise to avoid ruling out anything with certainty.

Also possible, should the crisis move against the interests of the left, is a technocracy of the sort with which we are increasingly familiar in Europe (particularly in Italy). While the historic cleavage between the traditional right and left forces in Chile might seem to render this unlikely, crisis generates strange bedfellows. Again, we must be weary of discounting any possibility. The thoroughgoing neoliberalisation of the centre-left has made its economic priorities, and those of some of its supporters, compatible enough with the right to imagine a ‘government of the centre’ aiming to overcome the crisis through grand coalition. It is only the geographically particular facts of politics, personality, and history which militate against it.

Ultimately, much remains to be played for. Boric himself is unlikely to resolve Chile’s ever-growing political crisis. Whether the left, the centre, or the right will have that capacity (even partially and temporarily, as would inevitably be the case) is the question that will define the future of the country. Contradictions must eventually be confronted, even if not overcome. Those which run through Chile are deep, and the question of whoever can mobilise most effectively against them is critical.

  1. In Chile, “coalition” is used interchangeably with pact, so an alliance of parties that unifies to run a single list of candidates in an election such as Boric’s Apruebo Dignidad. We’ve kept the use of coalition for this and used governing arrangement for the bringing together of these coalitions to form a government. 


Charlie Ebert

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