The triumph of the left-wing leader Gabriel Boric over the far-right José Antonio Kast cleared up the question about who will be in charge of the Chilean government. However, an inventory of questions that are projected far beyond Chile remains on the table. The most important refers to governance in political systems marked by alarming fragmentation. The second round regime solves this problem in a very partial way. It manages to strengthen a personal leadership to exercise the Executive Power. But it exposes the winner to minority rule in Congress. This difficulty, which is spreading throughout the region, opens a problematic horizon for the democracies of Latin America.
Sunday’s elections registered the highest turnout in Chile’s democratic history. And Boric obtained the most votes that any applicant has ever obtained: 4,620,671. That forcefulness contrasts with the situation of Boric himself in the first round. On that occasion he came second with 1,814,777 votes. It means that between that instance and Sunday’s it went from having 25.83% of the electorate to 55.87%.
In Boric’s adventures appear the weaknesses that the manuals teach about the system of ballotage. It is a method whose main objective is not to empower, but to obstruct the career of a candidate for a position. Not to promote, but to prevent a certain fraction from staying with the government. Invented by the Belgians, it was used more frequently by the French. First, to block the triumph of communism. Later, to cut the way to the extreme right. In Argentina it was the device to make the establishment of Peronism in power more laborious. In Brazil, it facilitated the convergence of center and center-right currents to block the march of the PT. The essence of the second round regime could be encrypted in that verse that Borges dedicates to Buenos Aires: “Love does not unite us, but horror”. That is the bond of those who resign themselves to forming a majority against someone. Not in favor.
There is the first challenge that Boric must face. Of the 4,620,671 accessions it won, 2,805,894 are conditional. You will need to display great wisdom to identify the limits of your electoral contract on that basis. Clearly demarcate the outline of the commission you received, which is not the mandate of your most convinced parishioners. It is an even more complex task, because the new president is not the absolute owner of the 1,814,777 votes in November either: a part of them obtained them through parties other than his own. Boric was not the candidate of a party. He was the candidate of a coalition. He belongs to the Social Convergence party, which is part of the Broad Front, which is also part of the conglomerate I Approve Dignity. He is, therefore, at the center of a group of citizens that is distributed in concentric circles. And, of those concentric circles, the most numerous is the furthest.
The second challenge posed by the electoral system to the new president of Chile is that the ballotage distributes the parliamentary seats in the first round. On that occasion, the alliance that nominated Boric obtained 37 deputies of the 155 that make up the Chamber. And four of the 50 members of the Senate. He will have to rule with a tiny minority. The most numerous blocks in Congress are right and center right. The fate of your Presidency will depend on your flexibility to negotiate with that devilish arithmetic.
The new president has offered many displays of insight in building a majority from such a precarious starting point. From the first minute after the first round he made it clear, to the scandal of his most dogmatic allies, that his program was not written in stone. He moderated his speech. And he surrounded himself with a team of economists who, without renouncing progressivism, have excellent professional scrolls. There are Eduardo Engel, Ricardo Ffrench-Davis, Andrea Repetto and Roberto Zahler. They have in common having been trained in universities in the United States and having collaborated, with varying degrees of proximity, with the socialists Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet.
The selection of these economists suggests that Boric, who came to politics to replace the left of the classic Chilean consensus, will approach it in conceptual terms to manage material life. This movement will require great clairvoyance to discern what has already been raised: what are the possibilities, and what are the limits, assigned by its electoral mandate. It is a crucial exercise, especially if it is remembered that Boric has established a reform program that touches various nerves of the Chilean economic regime. From a remodeling of taxes to a modification of the pension system.
The story has become very creative in the Chilean laboratory. The president who will take office on March 11 will also have to live with a Constituent Convention whose reforms must be validated by a plebiscite on May 28 of next year. The coexistence with this convention is very significant. But much more so is the public climate that gave rise to it: Boric has to govern that Chile that starred in a social outbreak in October 2019 that only stopped in the face of the coronavirus. In other words: with a very fragile political instrument, it must respond to the demand for a very ambitious regeneration. He himself was one of the agents of that impulse for change, in his stage as a student leader.
The scene in which the new president of Chile is installed seems extravagant. However, in its features is encrypted the disturbing crossroads that many Latin American democracies face. The counter cycle that followed a great wave of bonanza of the past decade has imposed harsh adjustments and, with them, painful frustrations. On that ground, a pandemic has also unfolded. Many societies are dissatisfied with the political forces that have been in charge of the government in the last five years. The traditional parties were corroded by this malaise. Public opinion was radicalized towards both extremes. But the old system has not been replaced by another. Fragmentation reigns, encouraged by social media. The old problem of political representation reappears, for all to see, with other peculiarities and clothes.
It is not a Chilean problem. In Peru, Pedro Castillo emerged from a ballotage that managed, if not correct, at least disguise a party system that had been pulverized. In the first round he had obtained 18.92% of the votes. In Ecuador, Guillermo Lasso won the presidency after coming second in the initial turn with 19.74% of the votes. Both must run the country supported by a tiny minority in Congress. It is not a phenomenon typical of the Andean republics. Between 2015 and 2019, Mauricio Macri ruled Argentina without a majority in either chamber. The same has happened to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil since 2019. The inconsistency is aggravated because the parties no longer govern. They govern coalitions that, many times, are formed not in favor of a program but against an adversary.
The challenge is extraordinary. The new leaders must respond to the anxious dissatisfactions that dismantled the old systems to their own power. But the instruments to achieve this present a striking weakness for design reasons. The first hours after the electoral result have exposed the rationality of the Chilean political leadership. From the other shore, Kast and the president, Sebastián Piñera, greeted the new president. It will take a lot of that goodwill to make up for the weaknesses of the system. Boric has made it quite clear that he intends to dismantle. It will be essential that you show what you intend to build with the same clarity.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.