Chile: The Battle for the Governance of Change

After the first round of presidential and parliamentary elections in Chile, the question on the minds of many foreign observers, and many Chileans living here is whether the winner will be able to secure basic agreements to carry out the necessary transformations and consolidate democracy with social justice and environmental sustainability, or whether the priority will be mainly order and security.  They also wonder why there has been such a rapid change in electoral behaviour, which has polarized in two years.

There seemed to be a widespread assumption that after four centre-left presidents who were in office for 20 years, between 1990 and 2010, and then the government of the New Majority (which included the Communist Party), between 2014 and 2018, a permanent formula for gradual progress had been found. It was a record, but then suddenly it all changed.

Towards the end of 2019, intense social unrest disrupted everything, just the year when the UNDP again reported that Chile had achieved the best human development index in Latin America.

How to explain such changes?


Unrest and the outbreak of protests

There had been signs of growing unrest during Piñera's administration.  As early as his first term in office, in 2011, there had been an outburst of university students' rebellion. But in 2019 the strong social protest shook the foundations of national coexistence and the political system.

The fact that both events took place during two right-wing governments does not seem to be a coincidence. Could this have happened to any other government? I don't think so. In my opinion, the change in electoral attitudes was due to Piñera's attempts to change the course that had been set. In both periods and to no avail, he put the emphasis on security and growth and disregarded social and institutional changes. In his second term, he ruled out the pension reform and Bachelet's proposal for a new Constitution, which was submitted to Parliament in 2017.

On top of this, corruption involving politicians, the military, the police and businessmen (the collusion between pharmacy chains and paper, poultry and gas producers), led to outrage at abuse and inequality.  Moreover, this was compounded by the violence of hooded groups in Santiago and the Araucania, and the criminal action that the government was unable to contain.

There are those who have suggested other reasons for the change. One is that the Concertation failed to implement important reforms, which added to the management failures of the last Bachelet administration. A further reason is that progress boosted expectations, and in turn intensified the rejection of inequality, which fuelled the protests. Piñera's government weakened, and the prestige of parliament and political parties declined. As a result, some noted that a new elite-people divide predominated.

In October 2019, massive social demonstrations broke out. Nobody had expected them, they overwhelmed all political parties, the parliament, and the government. Violence struck and the government felt jeopardized. Peaceful demonstrations were henceforth infiltrated by small groups that wrecked metro stations, committed acts of arson, looting and attacks on the police. This action by minority groups was met with rejection. The police used disproportionate force and violated human rights.  Conflict and polarisation grew stronger

Faced with the serious institutional crisis, the political system reacted surprisingly promptly and, in an unprecedented move, the right and the left agreed in Parliament in November 2019 to pave the way for a change to Pinochet's 1980 Constitution. It was an incredible concession on the part of the right. It was agreed to hold a referendum whereby the citizens would decide whether they wanted a new constitution and how to draft it. The result was overwhelming: 80% approved, and the same vote supported a Constitutional Convention to carry it out.

Against the backdrop of a pandemic that seriously affected everyday life, Chilean men and women had to face an unprecedented electoral process: a constitutional referendum, municipal elections, constituent elections, two rounds of elections of governors, presidential primary elections, and then elections for president, senators, deputies, and regional councillors.

In addition, the election of constituents, with gender parity and quotas for the representation of indigenous peoples, featured unfamiliar faces from different regions, socio-economic sectors, ethnic groups, and professions. Various members of the convention have provoked bewilderment and fear in vast sectors. Will they be able to compromise and draft a new constitution?


What new factors could account for these shifts and influence the second round and subsequent governability?

The demand for security was offset by demands for change. The two coalitions that have ruled so far, right and centre-left, fell out of favour with the electorate, with the ensuing polarisation between a far-right candidate and a more radical left-wing one.

Several factors could account for this turnaround.

- The demand for a generational change. The coalitions that fought against the dictatorship and built democracy failed to attract a significant number of well-prepared new generations to replace them and to bring in innovations. Young people opted for other parties. On the other hand, the voter turnout among young people has increased, fortunately, mainly motivated by the struggle to save the planet and curb pollution.

- The increasing use of social media. Digitalisation changes citizen participation: while it empowers citizens, it also entails the risk of social control and manipulation. The emergence of independent candidates and the radicalization of right-wing and left-wing positions are connected to this trend. Such is the case of Parisi, a candidate who ran an intense campaign against immigration through social media, gaining unexpected support in the north of the country. Everything is now more abrupt, fluctuating, and liquid.

- The strong feminist movement, its struggle for equal rights, and the electoral victory of women have changed the political scenario, agenda, and priorities. Reinforced by the parity of the Constitutional Convention, this new reality was encouraged by the fact that a woman had won the presidency twice. 

- The rise of violence and crime. The frightening perception of the risk posed by the action of destructive anarchist groups coupled with drug-related criminal gangs led many voters to support the most extreme right-wing candidate. More radical left-wing sectors seriously overlooked the need for law and order and adopted an ambiguous stance. Uncertainty and fear spread, even among low-income families. December's run-off election will bear this imprint.


In search of the lost governability

After the first round, the main hurdle to the future governability of Chile is that neither candidates Kast nor Boric received even 30 % of the vote, which is too low to address legitimately what is to come. Voter turnout barely reached 50 %. And the new make-up of both Houses of Parliament reveals more dispersion, with no party having a majority. In the Chamber of Deputies, and especially in the Senate, the more moderate centre-left and centre-right sectors will be highly influential, albeit less cohesive.

Despite this fragility, Chile has at least two advantages to navigate this turbulent period: institutional tradition and more stable economic fundamentals. The institutional operation will depend on the Constitutional Convention. While it can channel new aspirations and organise the future system, it can also obstruct agreements (which must be approved by two-thirds of the members) and raise uncertainty.

Economic distress will test the capacity to reduce inequality, which is essential for democratic stability. Chile and Latin America will face greater social demands amid rising indebtedness and slow growth without innovation or technology.

Meanwhile, the Constitutional Convention continues its work. It has the opportunity to draft a new text that includes the humanist principles that should guide our common life, that is more egalitarian and sustainable, more innovative and entrepreneurial, and promotes universal rights in the face of climate and digital change. However, unless there is a search for understanding and citizen participation, this historic opportunity could be thwarted.

There is much more at stake in Chile than a presidential election. Its governability is under threat. The far-right candidate may undermine the defence of human rights and set back social changes for inclusion. The left-wing candidate will need to build confidence, broaden his constituency, and adapt his programs to make them viable. Economic growth will be essential. Both will have to leave their comfort zones.

Will we be able to narrow the polarisation, converge, and make urgent post-pandemic social reforms? The main challenge for a better future is to secure a new constitution and strengthen democracy with far-reaching transformations backed by majorities.

The road will be fraught with obstacles. Compulsory order without social change will only deepen the crisis. Social inclusion, participation, and productive development in the absence of a majority and law and order is hardly viable. What will the outcome be?  Undoubtedly, it should be socio-economic and institutional change with social peace. However, the obvious is not yet guaranteed. 


Sergio Bitar is a civil engineer and a politician, having chaired the Party for Democracy on three occasions. President of the Chilean Council for Foresight and Strategy. He is a member of the advisory council of the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA). He is also a Senior Fellow of the Inter American Dialogue. He has been President Allende's Minister of Mining, Senator and Minister of Education of President Lagos, and Minister of Public Works of President Bachelet.

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