Chile elections 2021: Chile elects president on the rubble of social unrest | International


In Plaza Baquedano there is a pedestal without a statue. The equestrian figure of General Manuel Baquedano, hero of the War of the Pacific, was withdrawn last March. The absence is a symbol of the defeat of the authorities to prevent vandalism on bronze, the target of young people who, since the revolts of October 2019, have maintained the pulse in that central area of ​​Santiago de Chile. The scars of the excesses are still there, open: a university headquarters in ruins occupied by homeless people, a four-story confectionery ransacked, two churches burned and the Violeta Parra museum completely destroyed. The shops can hardly be seen behind the metal doors. To warn the unsuspecting, posters with the legend “we are attending” proliferate.

Destruction is in the streets for whoever wants to look at it. And it structures a good part of the political map that this Sunday will face at the polls to renew the Presidency, the Chamber of Deputies and half of the Senate. None of the seven candidates for La Moneda will reach the 50% necessary to win in the first round, according to the polls of 15 days ago (when the veto to disseminate them came into force), and on December 19 there will be a tiebreaker. The polls anticipate a final duel between José Antonio Kast, a far-rightist who has not cut the legacy of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, and Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old leftist militant of the Broad Front who has made an alliance with the Communist Party. The first promises the recovery of lost peace, less State and more economic freedom, spiced with an anti-immigrant discourse and against abortion and minority rights; the second proclaims heir to the student revolts – he was one of their leaders in 2011 – and offers profound changes in education, the pension system and health.

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In this discussion, the center has been left out, either heeled to the right or to the left. His candidates are Sebastián Sichel, an independent who represents the ruling right of the president, Sebastián Piñera; and the Christian Democratic senator Yasna Provoste, political daughter of the defunct Concertación de parties that governed Chile between 1990 and 2010. The electorate blames them for the unresolved ills during the post-dictatorship transition, such as inequality and the absence of the State in key sectors. “Although the milestone of 2019 has its origin in economic and social aspects, it revealed a very acute institutional crisis, with the weakening of the traditional parties that did not channel discontent,” says Octavio Avendaño, a sociologist at the University of Chile. In the list of victims are the Cristina Democracy and also the Socialist Party. The right wing, which had Piñera as its sole representative in La Moneda, will leave power in March with minimum popularity. “Faced with this, there is a social outbreak that culminates in the constituent process in which we find ourselves now,” says Avendaño.

The Constituent Assembly was the political response to social discontent. Elected in May 2021, she opened the door to independent forces and candidates, mostly from the left. Many of those forces have dissolved or are facing internal problems. They are in charge of drafting a new Constitution to replace the one in force since 1980, when Pinochet imposed on Chileans his political and economic legacy in writing, although it was reformed fifty times in democracy. The Constituent Assembly’s agenda coincides with the demands of the riots, but it has lost firepower against discontent. How to explain but that a candidate like Kast is firm in the polls, even above Boric, when only six months ago Chile gave its majority electoral support to candidates located in the antipodes.

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Protesters are sprayed by a police water cannon during an anti-government protest in Santiago, Chile, Friday, Nov. 1, 2019.
Protesters are sprayed by a police water cannon during an anti-government protest in Santiago, Chile, Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. Rodrigo Abd (AP)

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Plaza Baquedano is popularly called Plaza Italia. Depending on who you talk to, it will also be Plaza Dignidad. The entrance to the subway station is still closed, with graffiti reminiscent of what was once a battlefield. A mural says in yellow letters “Social War” under a skull with a police cap pierced by an arrow. The attack on the subway in October 2019 was a blow “to the spine of the city,” says Iván Poduje, an expert in urban development and author of the book Seven Kabezas, a study on the consequences of the riots in the capital’s neighborhoods. On October 18, two years ago, the protesters destroyed 27 out of a total of 140. “The subway had the capacity to correct much of the damage, but there are still some traces of that. The most complex is in 15 points of the capital where the services, the supermarkets, the damaged shops were not rebuilt. The economy that revolved around these peripheral neighborhoods died and insecurity has grown, ”he explains.

“The outbreak began to be seen by broad sectors as something that brought more pain, and not social transformation,” warns Cristian Valdivieso, director of the consulting firm Criteria. For this reason, he adds, the political scenario is no longer that of 2019: “Today we are between two narratives: one transformative and the other restorative.” “There are two projects at stake,” adds Marcela Ríos, a political scientist in Chile at the United Nations Development Program. “There is a sector that wants to take the country to the moment before the outbreak; there is another who wants to deepen the process, to change the development model. That is why this election is going to be very significant for the next decades ”.

The restorative spirit nests in Kast’s vote, which not only sneaks into the upper strata, but also in those who felt in the street violence a threat to what little they had. The 15 points of Santiago that are still scorched earth today give an account of this. That is why “that impulse that came from the riots has been mitigating,” says Marcela Ríos. “The pandemic had a lot to do with it, because without it the scenario would have been different. For example, the election of the Constituent Assembly would not have been postponed and today we would have a presidential (election) with the finished text. There was also a change of conversation, of concerns. The revolt remained for an important part of the population in the past ”, he explains.

If Kast is restoration, Boric is a shift into the unknown. Agustín Squella, philosopher and member of the Constituent Assembly for the moderate left, says that Boric “does not represent disorder [como dice la derecha en su campaña], although the uncertainty does, and not so much because of its proposals, but because of how changeable it has been in them and because of the foolish public statements of some of its spokesmen ”. The candidate’s alliance with the Communist Party is what scares his electorate the most. A statement by the group in favor of Daniel Ortega’s electoral victory in Nicaragua, where all opposition candidates were imprisoned, forced Boric to express his disagreement. The Communist Party, however, did not officially back down, as requested by the candidate. Kast, on the other hand, “is offering the currency of order in exchange for freedom, taking advantage of the widespread annoyance of the people with the continuous manifestations of violence. That is the old game of the worst of the rights, who know very well when to propose a barter like that, “says Squella. Those two models from Chile will collide this Sunday at the polls.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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