The future of the Chilean left

By Robert Funk
1 November 2017
ChileChile
The upcoming presidential election poses a challenge for a divided left wing
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One of the defining characteristics of the Chilean transition to democracy was the shift within the Socialist party, which allowed it to renounce the revolutionary fervour of the Allende era and, together with its Christian Democratic coalition partners, usher in a period of unprecedented prosperity and political stability. This was made possible by a renewed appreciation of formal democracy, an understanding of macroeconomic fundamentals, and a commitment to targeted social spending.

The result was a dramatic reduction in poverty, and an increase in GDP per capita from just under $5,000 (US) in 1990 to almost $25,000 last year. By almost any measure – health care, infrastructure, education, trade, social attitudes or economic activity – Chile is a different country to the one General Pinochet ruled over when he handed over the presidential sash almost three decades ago.

But this new Chile presents a huge challenge to established political parties, and the upcoming presidential and congressional elections offer some clues as to how the left is adjusting.

Heading into November’s elections, the left is divided. Sebastián Piñera of the centre-right National Renewal party, who served as president from 2010 to 2014, continues to lead in the polls by a wide margin, with more than twice the support of his closest challenger, Senator Alejandro Guillier of the centre-left Nueva Mayoría (New Majority party). Guillier, at 20%, is in turn polling twice as high as Beatriz Sánchez, who represents the leftist Frente Amplio (Broad Front) coalition.

Since it seems that Piñera will top the poll in November, the real contest will be December’s run-off, where he will go head to head against the second place candidate. Whether the left manages to present a united front is one of the critical questions of this election.

The governing New Majority party is the coalition that evolved from the Concertación – the group of pro-democracy parties that was persecuted during the military dictatorship, and organised to overthrow General Pinochet at the ballot box. Its two principal parties, the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, were not natural allies, but understood the need to co-operate in order to defeat the regime.

Later, with the return to democracy, the electoral system provided an incentive to continue working together. The Communist party, which during the dictatorship maintained a ‘by all means necessary’ approach to democratisation, had been excluded from the Concertación. But over time, new political forces emerged from leftwing social movements and the Communists were increasingly viewed as potential allies. In an attempt to stem the tide of social discontent, the Concertación brought these factions in, forming the New Majority.

The more centrist Christian Democrats maintained their place in the coalition too, but felt increasingly uncomfortable with the group’s leader, President Michelle Bachelet, and her reformist agenda. So much so, that by the end of the current administration, the Christian Democrats opted to field their own presidential candidate, Carolina Goic, for the upcoming election, who is currently polling at around 4%. The new electoral system removed any remaining incentives to work together from the centre.

Meanwhile, those social movements that were happy to join the former Concertación to enable their candidates to be elected to congress, have become disgruntled with what they view as the slow pace of reform. Their members splintered off to form the Broad Front, uniting a range of small leftist groups – a mix of environmentalist, far left, centrist-liberal and quasi-anarchical organisations, who share only an anti-establishment rejection of the existing political and economic order. With populist proposals – to wipe out all student debt, for example – the Broad Front closely resembles insurgent leftist movements in other parts of the world.

Another characteristic it shares with other emerging leftist populists is a questioning of the social democratic project. For three decades, the Concertación did its best to shift Chile towards a European model of centrist social democracy, seeking, in the words of one of its original slogans, growth with equity. While recognising that reducing social inequality was desirable and necessary, it understood that without economic growth, social spending would be either impossible or irresponsible.

Above all, after almost twenty years of dictatorship, this left valued consensus and governability. But such an attitude is viewed by the groups that comprise the Broad Front as misguided at best, or treacherous at worst. Two key groups in the Broad Front view politics as a zero-sum game and see negotiation as selling out: older people who cling to the dreams of their youth, and the youngsters who did not live through the turbulent times of the 1960s and 70s.

The Concertación came to the conclusion that it needed these votes in order to win. It sought to establish a new image by changing its name to New Majority in 2013, and claimed its mission was “to destroy the entrenched foundations of the neoliberal model of the dictatorship”.

It implemented a series of reforms, concentrating on education, labour and tax policy, and began the process of designing a new constitution. But radical language, a lack of attention to detail and an improvisational approach to implementation suggest that the New Majority has moved away from its commitment to pragmatic governance. Through the coalition’s time in office, investment decreased and economic activity stalled – a situation worsened by a drop in the international price of copper, which, as the world’s top producer of the metal, accounts for around half of the country’s exports.

Still, the new approach was insufficient for the breakaway movements of the Broad Front, who accused New Majority of harbouring neoliberal tendencies, convinced that ‘the people’ were with them. While one might think poorer or older Chileans could be tempted by the Broad Front’s populist offerings, polls suggest New Majority’s Guiller performs better among both these groups than Broad Front’s Sánchez, who prevails only among urban 18-34 year olds.

But National Renewal’s Piñera beats them both. The centre-right candidate beats every competitor in every demographic – rural, urban, young, old, rich, poor.

This is the challenge facing the left in Chile and elsewhere. It seems to have lost its historic base, and doesn’t quite know how to get it back. Moderation did not work, but neither does the new populism. Does the left look to the past for solutions for new problems? Does it stick to representing a narrow base – ‘the construction of a third force’, as the Broad Front puts it – or try to widen its appeal? Until it figures out how to attract new voters, the old and new left will be fighting over the crumbs.

Image credit: Marcelo Benitez / CON / Getty Images