Far Right Holds Chile Hostage

The ultra-conservative Republican Party won a majority on Chile’s new Constitutional Council, delivering a major blow to President Gabriel Boric’s transformative platform.

May 23, 2023

Republican Party leader 	José Antonio Kast at a press conference in 2021 (Mediabanco Agencia / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0)

President Gabriel Boric’s government suffered a critical defeat on May 7, as Chile’s far-right Republican Party won a majority in elections to select members for a Constitutional Council. In an ironic twist, ultra-conservative politician José Antonio Kast, an outspoken critic of the process, is now in control of drafting the country’s new constitution. The council is the latest installment in a process launched as part of the 2019 “Agreement for Social Peace” following weeks of fervent protests over inequality in which thousands were imprisoned and subjected to human rights violations, including torture, at the hands of Chilean security forces. 

The Republican Party, led by populist lawyer Kast, won more than 35 percent of the votes, securing 22 of the 50 available seats. The ultra-conservative Chile Seguro (Safe Chile) coalition won 11 seats, with 21 percent of the vote, leaving the left-wing governing coalition Unidad para Chile (Unity for Chile) with just 17 seats. Only one Indigenous representative was elected, Alihuan Antileo, in sharp contrast to the previous assembly in which Indigenous representation and gender parity were championed. This recent vote follows a prior attempt to enact a new constitution that was summarily rejected by the electorate last year. Following months of negative campaigning, attacks on the reputation of chamber members, and misinformation spread by the opposition and amplified by Chile’s right-wing media outlets, 62 percent voted to reject the progressive draft constitution on September 4, 2022.

The Republican Party was founded in 2019 by Kast, formerly a member of the pro-Pinochet Independent Democratic Union (UDI) party. He resigned from UDI in protest when the party began to critique the former dictator and went on to become a frontrunner against Boric in the 2021 presidential election under the Republic Party banner. The party’s ideology is deeply rooted in Pinochetismo, promoting neo-conservative heteropatriarchal religious values that oppose equal marriage, abortion, and sex education in schools.  

The Republican Party’s spokesperson and Constitutional Council member Luis Silva Irarrázaval, part of the Catholic sect Opus Dei and whose slogan is “Let’s Recover Chile,” told the press after getting elected that he will “oppose abortion as a right.” Silva also said that “women’s reproductive rights are not essential to a constitution.”

A Rejection of Traditional Political Parties

While the surprising outcome of the vote indicates a sharp swing to the right, there are various other factors to consider. Sunday’s vote was mandatory, reaching a voter turnout of 84.9 percent. In May of 2021, turnout for the Constitutional Convention election was under 50 percent, despite nearly 80 percent of voters supporting a new charter in a 2020 referendum. Last week’s ballot saw a high number of null votes—21 percent of the total—and low votes for traditional right- and left-wing parties, indicating a rejection of mainstream parties.

Christie Mella, a psychologist and social policy specialist who lives in Valparaíso, said she voted null as a rejection of “this negotiated deal made by the Chilean political elites.” Like others on the left, Mella identifies as an “Octubrista” (Octoberist), aligned with the 2019 social uprising and the demands made by disenfranchised sectors of Chilean society at that time. “I am not a Noviembrista,” said Mella, referring to the “Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution” signed by lawmakers, including then congressman Boric, that ushered in the constitutional process.

“That agreement was a strategy to save Chilean political institutions that were being openly questioned on the streets of Chile during the uprising. Boric signed that agreement to get where he is today. The protests were about rejecting that political class—not just the Right but all the political parties who are complicit in impunity for human rights [violations] and their servile roles as administrators of the economic model that we inherited from the Pinochet regime,” Mella added.

Progressive critics accuse the Boric administration of pandering to the Right and abandoning the president's transformational platform. Since taking office, Boric has failed to reform the police and alienated Indigenous voters by enforcing a military state of emergency in Southern Chile, despite promising that he would pursue dialogue with Indigenous sectors in conflict with multinationals on their ancestral territory. Boric’s recent political appointments, including former Santiago mayor Carolina Toha as interior minister, include the same politicians that were rejected in the streets in 2019, signalling a centrist shift that privileges an influential political base long seen as being out of touch with the majority of the Chilean people.

“To vote null is to reject this pact of betrayal,” said Mella. This rejection reflects criticism by some progressive sectors over the lack of grassroots representation in the "social peace" agreement and in the latest iteration of the constitutional project. Other motivations for casting null votes include a lack of interest in the process and a scarcity of information about the candidates. Polls carried out by Cadem in the leadup to the vote indicated that some 70 percent of voters were not interested in the outcome and the wider constitutional process. 

Hector Rios Jara, a specialist on Chilean social movements, attributes voter apathy to fatigue with a process that is increasingly distanced from citizens’ day-to-day interests. “The constitutional strategy is detached from immediate change in everyday life,” says Rios Jara. "It hasn’t improved the everyday conditions of the people, which was one of the triggers for the uprising of 2019.”

An Uncertain Future

The destabilizing effects of the far-right swing has caused ripples far beyond the mechanics of drafting a new constitution. Rios Jara says the outcome of the vote denotes a crisis for the country’s centrist parties, including the Party for Democracy (PPD), the Liberal Party, and the Christian Democrats, who led the post-dictatorship transition to democracy. “This gives some room for the government to regroup as a leading force of the center-left. That will be fundamental for the next round of elections,” says Rios Jara. 

Rios Jara notes that far-right politicians will be able to “take control of the convention as they hold an outright majority. The center-right also complements that majority. Therefore, the Right can decide the final outcome of the convention on their own terms. That is a major defeat for the center-left and government coalition.”

With only 17 seats on the newly formed council, the governing coalition will have no veto power in the constitutional process. “It is clear that despite the Left being in government, they have lost control of the process. The Left was unable to capitalize on the momentum of delegitimizing neoliberalism in Chile,” says Rios-Jara, lamenting the fact that the social uprising of 2019 has not translated into real social change.

The Constitutional Council will commence its work on June 6, with a deadline to deliver the completed draft constitution by November 6. A mandatory referendum on the new charter is scheduled to be held on December 17.

Following the announcement of the election results Boric tweeted: “Today the Chilean people have once again expressed their positions democratically by electing constitutional councillors, whom I invite to act with wisdom and temperance to draft a text that reflects the majority in the country.”

Despite this considered statement, the Boric government’s transformative plans for the future of Chile lie in tatters, a proposal that in many ways depended on the enactment of a progressive constitution.

This coming December the Chilean electorate faces an impossible conundrum: to reject the new proposal, and in doing so legitimize the constitution enacted under Pinochet’s reign of terror, or enact a potentially even more authoritarian text that will likely restrict women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights, strip away existing labor and environmental protections, and further entrench neoliberalism, impunity, and inequality.

Carole Concha Bell is a PhD candidate at King's College London. She is researching Chilean second-generation diaspora literature and Regime discourse at the Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Department (SPLAS). She is also a regular contributor to national and international media on the subject of Chilean politics and Indigenous rights.

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