Thursday, December 23, 2021

Chilean Déjà vu?

If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave
 —Chilean president-elect Gabriel Boric upon being elected on Sunday
Is history repeating itself in the Land of Poets?

In Chile’s 1970 presidential election, the choice was narrowed down to extremes on the left and right. There was a popular, moderate incumbent president (a Christian Democrat), but under the constitution in effect at the time he was not allowed to run for re-election. Instead, his party’s standard-bearer was a weak candidate, so the choice boiled down to right and left. In those days Congress determined the winner of the three-man race, and the Christian Democrats threw their support to socialist Salvador Allende. His election was followed by three years of instability caused by (depending on your point of view) either Allende’s radical reforms and policies or by his opponents’ overreaction to them. In 1973 he was overthrown by a military coup, and a junta ruled the country for the next 17 years.

Superficially, something similar to 1970 seems to have just happened again. But there are key differences. Under a different constitution—one written originally under the Pinochet dictatorship—a first-round presidential election on November 21 drew several candidates from a variety of parties across the political spectrum. The largest single vote-getter was the Republican Party’s far-right nominee José Antonio Kast with 27.91 percent of the vote. Not far behind was the far-left candidate of Apruebo Dignidad (an alliance whose name means “I approve of dignity”) Gabriel Boric with 25.72 percent. Given the overall makeup of the first-round voting and the opinion polls, it was no surprise that, in the second-round vote held this past Sunday, Boric was the winner—although the margin of his victory (more than 11 percent) was indeed notable.

Boric’s party is the left-wing Social Convergence, and his coalition has the support of Chile’s Communist Party. Do we need to worry about a right-wing reaction as happened in 1973? Probably not. One major difference between Boric and Allende is that Boric actually received a majority mandate from voters. Perhaps even more significant is that there has been a huge generational shift in Chile. Protests in the streets in 2019 led to the election of a Constitutional Convention after a plebiscite in which 78 percent of voters chose to replace the country’s current charter. Given the makeup of the elected convention, the new constitution will be much more leftist-oriented than any in the country’s history.

Sometimes it helps us North Americans to draw comparisons between the United States and other countries. For example, we might say that electing Gabriel Boric as president of Chile would be comparable to Americans electing… who? Bernie Sanders? Elizabeth Warren? Comparisons like that are not ideal because, for one thing, what is considered left-wing in the U.S. is often much different than what the label represents in other countries. For another thing (and to be unkind) Sanders is as old as dirt, and Warren is no spring chicken either. It is a strange feature of U.S. politics these days that the American political duopoly keeps throwing up geriatric candidates to the voters. As a result, the de facto leaders of America’s left in government are dinosaurs from another age.

This is not the case with Gabriel Boric. At 35, he barely met the minimum age qualification to run for president. A former student leader while studying law at the University of Chile, he was in the forefront of the protests leading to the Constitutional Convention. He and those around him are of an entirely new generation which sees the world much differently than their parents and grandparents did. While the appeal and lure of socialism have long tantalized certain segments of previous generations, anyone who spends much time around young people these days knows that as a political philosophy it is much more mainstream among that age group than it has ever been before.

During his campaign, Boric repeatedly promised to “bury neoliberalism,” i.e. free-market capitalism. That is unsettling for those of us who associate free markets with democracy and personal freedom. On the positive side, though, he cites as his models Europe’s Nordic countries (which are firmly capitalistic, despite what some may think) and Uruguay—as opposed to Fidel Castro’s Cuba, which was Allende’s model.

Decades from now, will Chileans be happy with their political choice? Maybe. Maybe not. In any event, they will at least know it was their own choice and not, as in North America, a legacy bequeathed them by elderly leaders who will by then be long gone.