Carole Concha Bell – Apathy or strategy in Chile’s decisive election

Yesterday, 21 November, there was a general election in Chile.The frontrunners pit the far-right against the nominally left.

Update: With more than 90% of the votes counted, Kast leads Boric by 28% to 25.6%. The two will meet in a run-off next month.

Carole Concha Bell is a PhD student at King’s College, London and freelance writer

Cross-posted from red pepper

The twists and turns in Chile’s recent political roller-coaster has thrown up another shock as far-right candidate Jose Antonio Kast is being touted by some pollsters as most likely to win this week’s election (21 November 2021). Dubbed the Bolsonaro of Chile, Kast has overtaken moderate right-wing candidate Sebastian Sichel and whose election would certainly compromise the emergent socio-economic model currently being negotiated after years of protest and tension in Chile.

Kast himself has an eye-raising background. His father was an escaped Nazi who arrived in Chile in the 1950s under false pretences. Cristian Kast, the eldest brother, formed part of the Chicago Boys clique, famed for their design of neoliberal policies during the Pinochet dictatorship while Jose Antonio was a vociferous supporter of the ‘Yes’ campaign to keep the dictator in power during the 1988 plebiscite.

At the other end of the political spectrum sits Gabriel Boric, who rose to prominence as a student leader of the Izquierda Autónoma together with Communist Party members Camila Vallejo and Karol Kariola during the education protests of 2011-13. Boric saw off competition from Daniel Jadue to become the strongest left-wing contender and Chile’s best hope for achieving the demands that have been articulated through the estallido social of 2019-20.

Pinochet’s legacy

To understand how a far-right Pinochet apologist opposed to social progress and economic reform has managed to gain such prominence, it’s necessary to understand Chile’s fractured transition to democracy.

The plebiscite of 1988 in which General Pinochet was narrowly defeated by the ‘No’ vote was only the beginning of a heavily orchestrated transition away from military rule. The regime controlled many aspects of this so-called transition and Pinochet remained head of the army until 1998 and took up a lifetime position in the Senate. In a pact of silence, the military were granted immunity for their murderous role upholding the dictatorship and key parliamentary institutions were staffed with ex-military. Outgoing President Sebastian Pinera’s recent protection from impeachment (for a litany of corruption charges) is one such legacy of how the old boy’s network in Chile still operates.

During the transition to democracy in the early 1990s, the democratically elected government of concertación parties ultimately failed to tackle the human rights abuses and deep economic inequalities that took hold during the regime. Instead, they focused their energies on ‘reconciliation’ and ‘closure’ which embedded a deep-rooted mistrust of a political elite seen to be still in cahoots with the dictatorship. This failure to remove Pinochet’s cronies from public life has allowed the conservative right to dominate the public discourse, block proposals in the senate and has provided a fertile breeding ground for far-right ideologies to thrive.

The threat of the new right

A Kast win could have very serious consequences for vulnerable and marginalised groups in Chile. His proposals make for depressing reading. He is in favour of increasing retirement age to 85, eliminating the women’s ministry (to be replaced with a family ministry) increasing the army pension (already four times higher than the average), in favour of pardoning torturers from the Pinochet regime, against the new constitution, against abortion rights and gender equality, and in favour of strengthening penalties against political opponents.

He is also staunchly in favour of the current state of emergency in Chile’s Southern Araucania region, in which President Pinera, under pressure from a coalition of industry representatives, deployed one thousand heavily armed troops to deal with the Mapuche conflict’. The area forms part of the ancestral lands of the Mapuche, Chile’s largest indigenous group, and is one of the frontlines against continuing exploitation and extractivism in Latin America.

Human rights groups are understandably alarmed at the prospect of Kast winning the election. His rhetoric is frequently and explicitly anti-gay, anti-immigrant, and anti-communist. Ale Fernandez from Chile Solidarity Network told Red Pepper: ‘The current election represents the usual party-political circus, with many forced to vote for the least racist candidate to avoid further human rights abuses. Boric’s light version of neoliberalism is only a small change, whereas the danger of a Kast win would plunge us back to an era of extreme right wing politics.’

Human rights groups are understandably alarmed at the prospect of Kast winning the election. His rhetoric is frequently and explicitly anti-gay, anti-immigrant, and anti-communist.

Gabriel Boric from Apruebo Dignidad claims he is committed to the social demands that grassroots movements have been pushing for since the unrest of 2019. Some of his proposals include: a universal health system that does not discriminate according to ability to pay, elimination of the current, controversial pensions system, non-sexist and inclusive education, equal access to employment, and transgender employment quotas.

In many ways, the striking contrast in political visions for Chile’s future reflects the ruptures and polarisation of the past. If Chileans truly want to move closer to a socially inclusive agenda, grassroots movements will have to tackle a deep seated mistrust of politicians, and focus their energies on parliamentary participation, a huge task in a country plagued by voter apathy.

Despite the optimism that ensued during the uprising in 2019, and the creation of a new constitutional body tasked with writing a new constitution, Chile finds itself yet again at a very dangerous crossroads. Vote tactically or endure the return of an unbridled fascism that will drag Chile back towards its darkest days.

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