AMAC Exclusive – By – Daniel Roman
Earlier this week, the most conservative candidate in decades finished first in Chile’s presidential elections. Although the race now heads to a runoff, his success is already heralding a new and, to many observers, shocking right turn in a region that had long been considered fertile territory for the global left.
Indeed, in the first part of this year, the left seemed to be on the march in Latin America. Left-wing candidate Pedro Castillo won a narrow victory in Peru’s spring presidential election, while in Chile, mass protests forced the government to hold elections for a new constituent assembly, elections in which the Right managed to win a mere 20% of seats. Chile, which has long been among the most centrist and stable of Latin American countries since the restoration of democracy there in 1988, seemed headed in the same direction that so many of its neighbors had taken.
But something unexpected happened on the way to revolution. Today, Castillo faces potential impeachment in Peru amidst infighting in his own alliance, while last weekend conservatives scored a major victory in Argentina’s midterm congressional elections, denying the left-leaning Peronists a Senate majority for the first time since the current system was introduced in 1983. And in Chile, Joe Antonio Kast came in first in the Presidential elections, and if he wins the runoff, stands to become the most right-wing president ever elected in Chile. This marks a stunning reversal from the situation in May, when it looked like Chile might be on its way to becoming another Bolivia or Venezuela.
What happened? Well for one thing, voters took a look at the record of the left in power, not just in their own countries, but abroad. Venezuela has long been a boogeyman for voters across Latin America, and the presence of millions of Venezuelan refugees stands as a constant reminder of where the promises of revolutionary utopia can lead. More recently, Daniel Ortega’s regime in Nicaragua has become a prominent dividing line, as the former revolutionary idol of Bernie Sanders has seemed to shift from mimicking Hugo Chavez in Venezuela to Kim Jong Un of North Korea, promoting his wife from Vice President to “co-president” and seeming to embrace the occult while presiding over an economic and humanitarian catastrophe.
Attitudes toward Ortega’s reelection have become a cause for conflict on the far left throughout Latin America. In Chile, Gabriel Boric, the leading left-wing candidate, broke with his own alliance, led by the Chilean Communist party, who congratulated Ortega on his “victory,” while Boric condemned it – demonstrating the liability actual socialist regimes pose to those running on socialist platforms in democracies. Even self-identified “Communists.”
Boric, a former student activist, received 25.83% of the vote in the first round of the Presidential election, and will face Jose Antonio Kast, a right-wing conservative who received 27.91% of the vote, in a runoff on December 19th. Exit polls show a close race. In fact, they indicate a tie if the runoff were held now. It is hard to overstate how much of a recovery this is for the right. In May, the major right-wing alliance won 20.6% of the vote in elections for an assembly to draft a new Constitution. By contrast, Kast, who is far to the right of the traditional Chile Vamos alliance (as a student, he openly campaigned for a YES vote in the 1988 referendum on extending Pinochet’s term in office while virtually all previous center-right candidates claimed they voted NO) received 26% of the vote on his own, while the Chile Vamos candidate received 13%, and an anti-woke, Bill Maher-esque “liberal” received another 13%. In the congressional elections, the center-left managed a narrow majority, 79-76, but this is a far cry from the lopsided majority they won in May. The prospect of a Kast presidency must dash their hopes of revolution.
What explains this recovery? One explanation may lay in the poor performance of the traditional parties of both right and left. Since the restoration of democracy, Chile has either been run by the Concertación, or Concentration of Parties for Democracy, an alliance of the parties which campaigned to bring down Pinochet and was dominated by Christian Democrats, Socialists, and a loose amalgam of center-right parties. The latter have won elections on only two occasions, 2009 and 2017, both thanks to Sebastian Pinera, a billionaire who claimed to have secretly opposed Pinochet, despite no evidence to support it.
The ghost of Pinochet has cast a long shadow over both alliances. The presidents elected by Concertación include Eduardo Frei Ruiz, who also lost to Pinera in 2017, the son of the Christian Democratic President of Chile from 1964-1970, and Michelet Bachelet, who also served two-terms, and whose father was an air force general who died under torture after opposing the 1973 coup. Bachelet’s most recent opponent was Evelyn Mathei, a childhood friend whose father headed the air force under Pinochet, and ultimately with American support forced Pinochet to respect the results of the 1988 referendum. The debate between the two broke down as both spent a moment crying and reflecting on their childhood experiences. A touching moment of reconciliation perhaps, but by 2013 the events were already 40 years in the past, and voters seemed to want more from the center-left than saying they opposed Pinochet, and more from the right than saying they secretly opposed Pinochet. They wanted progress on real issues.
What happened in 2020 was a revolt against this system. With Covid spreading across the country, Chile was one of the worst hit countries, and neither of the mainstream alliances seemed to have any plan for the future. Pinera, despite his immense wealth, seems to have used his office to further enrich himself and his family and became a target of anger. This anger was dominated by the far-left, students, and other activists who broke with Concertación, but it now becomes clear that it would not have been possible to nearly shut down the country and force the calling of a new constitutional assembly if large numbers of those on the right were not also disillusioned. Given the turnout disparity, it is now clear that the poor performance of the right in May had nothing to with voters embracing the left, but rather with right-wing voters staying home and abandoning a right which seemed to solely exist for the personal enrichment of Sebastian Pinera and his cronies, or as a pension scheme for the children of former Pinochet officers. It was a mirror image of the collapse of Concertación in 2017, when vast numbers of Leftwing voters refused to back a rerun of Eduardo Frei, Jr. If there was any doubt, it was dismissed by the recent performance of the traditional alliances.
On November 21st, the old alliances suffered a crushing defeat, with their candidates winning only 25% of the vote between them. Both Boric and Kast reject the post 1989 consensus. Kast openly defends the free-market policies of the Pinochet years and argues that all of the constitutional separations of power put in place since, designed to prevent anyone from becoming another Pinochet, have been designed to cripple effective governance. Interestingly, this is not far off from the criticism of Boric and the Left, except they see these measures, despite having been pushed by a center-left terrified of another Pinochet, as a conspiracy to prevent any effective left-wing policy. Both therefore agree that Chile has been running in neutral since 1989, and they disagree over whether to pick up from 1973 or 1989. This election provides the chance for voters to make a real choice.
There is of course more at stake. The Constitutional Convention elected in May still exists and at some point will announce a new Constitution. The left dominates it. It may well be that voters wish to have a check on its actions in the form of a President and Congress who the Convention will think twice about directly challenging without public opinion on its side. A victory by Kast would provide him with a larger mandate, and a more recent one than the Convention.
That can be a recipe for conciliation or conflict. Ideally, the Convention would recognize from Kast’s election that there is a mandate for change, but that mandate is for the things both left and right agree on, namely a stronger, more effective government. It will make clear the electorate did not vote for left-wing policy, but against the post-Pinochet duopoly. If so, it is easy to see how President and Convention can work together.
If, however, the Convention sees itself as a “left-wing” body, then it might try and organize itself as an opposition. It might try to use its authority to target the institutions it does not control, such as trying to shorten Presidential terms if Kast is President, or abolish the Senate where the Right has a narrow majority. If so, it is hard to see Kast, who has called for strong Presidential rule, tolerating that, and he might well be forced into dissolving it, likely to the fury of a Biden Administration which will call him a dictator.
In either case, it is increasingly clear that Chileans did not vote for Marxist Revolution and do not want it. Having seen its results elsewhere, they have made that very clear. It remains to be seen if the Constitutional Convention and the Chilean Left will draw the right lessons, or for that matter if America’s own far-left will. American left-wingers as well have all too often mistaken voter revolts against specific Republican policies, such as Paul Ryan’s economic agenda, for an electoral demand for “socialism.” They too have eagerly marched into subsequent electoral disaster, and then rather than accepting their error, attempted to recoup their losses in overtime by taking over institutions. They should take a lesson from Chile. The voters can want change. But being unhappy with the other guys does not mean they want any of your leftist revolution.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.