What Does Chile’s New Left Want?

The Left’s victories on May 15 and 16 showed the strength of the generation that became politicized in the 2011 student protests. Many of them now will take office at the local level and will play a significant role in the drafting of the new Magna Carta.

May 25, 2021

During the 2019 protests, a demonstrator holds up a sign reading "Look grandfather, Chile woke up" (José Miguel Cordero Carvacho)

Originally published in Spanish by Nueva Sociedad.

In 2016, a nascent coalition shook Chilean politics with an unexpected victory in the municipality of Valparaíso. The following year, despite discouraging electoral forecasts, the new coalition managed to consolidate itself with a surprising result in the presidential and parliamentary elections, in which it won 20 seats in the lower house and one in the Senate.

The Frente Amplio (FA), whose young leaders emerged in the heat of the 2011 student demonstrations, included a diversity of collectives and parties from across a broad political and ideological spectrum. After its initial success, there was much speculation about its ability to continue growing and become a force in the government. The FA’s first two years were marked by internal breakdowns and bids [for power] that eroded its image. Amid these squabbles, towards the end of 2019, Chile erupted into an unprecedented social uprising that brought millions of people to the streets and—together with the heavy erosion of the political institutionality constructed in the post-dictatorship transition—abruptly slashed the approval rating of President Sebastián Piñera’s government. Many things explained this uprising, but the all-out criticism of the entire political party system and the denunciation of the blind spots in the transition to democracy were undoubtedly fundamental elements. At first, it seemed like criticism of the traditional parties could translate into support for new organizations like the FA, but it didn’t turn out this way. The public also targeted those who had previously challenged the reigning political order.

The strongest blow to the new coalition came after several of its main leaders signed, as representatives of their parties, a multipartisan agreement that would launch a constitutional process to institutionally channel social demands. Concessions were made to reach this agreement, like accepting that the articles of the new Magna Carta would be approved with a two thirds majority of the Constitutional Convention, which would give more veto power to conservative sectors.

Some in the FA saw this as a betrayal. A series of breakdowns significantly reduced the FA’s parliamentary presence. The final blow to the coalition happened when, after confirming a new alliance with the Communist Party (PC), four lawmakers abandoned the organization. Various media outlets were quick to pronounce it dead, claiming that what was left of the FA would be absorbed into the PC. Among the FA’s own members, the question began to take hold of whether the alliance would be the first coalition of the new political order that began to emerge with the uprising, or the last of a declining order.

This was the backdrop to the May 15-16 vote to elect the members of the Constitutional Convention, mayors, and governors. Based on polls, previous elections, and projections, various analysts had predicted an election without upheavals, shaped by the same voters who have always handed victory to one of the two main political forces that have dominated Chilean politics for the last 30 years. On one side, there was the center-left coalition, successor to the Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia that led the transition process that ended Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. On the other, the right-wing coalition originally built to defend the legacy of the dictatorship but that, as the years passed, attempted (somewhat successfully) to scrub this stain from its history. The analysts couldn't have been more wrong.

At the time of writing, the Electoral Tribunal has not finished certifying the elections. But it is already clear that this election constitutes a veritable earthquake for national politics. In the Constitutional Convention, the vote for the Right collapsed. The right-wing Chile Vamos bloc won about 20 percent of the votes; in 2017, right-wing President Sebastián Piñera won in the second round with 54 percent. The convention results also showed a slump in the votes for the traditional center-left (organized under the Apruebo slate), which included the Socialist Party, Democracia Cristiana, and other center-left forces.

Perhaps the most notorious face of this crisis was the Democracia Cristiana, which only managed to elect a single member, the party’s president, to the Constitutional Convention. The main surprise came from the hundreds of independent candidates that managed to get elected to the convention. Of the 155 members, 103 are not part of any political party. Unlike the two traditional blocs, the recently launched FA-PC leftist alliance managed to maintain and even increase its presence, surpassing the center-left Apruebo coalition in the number of elected delegates.

However, the municipal elections that took place simultaneously were even more unexpected. The PC, but above all the FA, managed to snatch up populous and iconic right-wing municipalities. From working-class comunas to some upper-middle-class ones, this coalition’s proposals mustered a surprising level of support. In comunas with mayor’s offices long held by the right-wing—like central Santiago, where La Moneda [presidential palace] is located, and Maipú, and second most populous comuna of the Metropolitan Region—the victory was undeniable. In these locations, 30-year-olds Irací Hassler of the PC and Tomás Vodanovic of the FA were elected, while Javiera Reyes took Lo Espejo [a densely populated comuna in southern Santiago]. Victories in Viña del Mar, Valdivia, and other areas add to these results.

Some of these victories are surprising precisely because they are at the municipal level. These elections historically have been marked by clientelistic networks and consolidated party machinery, which has made it difficult for third-party forces to break in. In addition, the Left victories notably cut across socioeconomic lines. From popular comunas of predominantly working-class people, like Lo Espejo, to upper-middle-class areas like Ñuñoa, where 32-year-old Emilia Ríos of the FA won the mayor’s seat, [support for the Left] pervades practically the entire social ladder in the capital city; both [Lo Espejo and Ñuñoa] ended up in the hands of the leftist coalition. Even in the Las Condes comuna, the iconic home of the country’s upper class and a right-wing stronghold, FA candidate Isidora Alcalde managed to get elected to the city council.

There are many reasons for this massive resonance at the local level. Without a doubt, a central part falls on the political crisis unleashed by the 2019 national strike, which materialized into a demand for political reckoning, along with a deep mistrust of traditional politics. But amid this landscape, a policy proposal of the leftist coalition also seems to have become particularly attractive. 

The first element that successful municipal candidates have in common is their ground game and their backgrounds in the comunas they were competing for. Their experiences as local activists, council members, and other local leadership positions characterized the past few years. While the media and public discourse had spotlighted infighting, breakdowns, and the resignations of national spokespersons in parliament, these young people were “doing the hard work” of working with community groups, neighborhood associations, local media, and various organized social movements in these areas. Moreover, it was these candidates who took special care to create outreach programs in communities that have seen them do the work over the past few years. This largely explains how they overcame the sense of cronyism in local elections dominated by large political parties that once functioned as a safeguard.

Another element that distinguishes the new leadership is their youth. In general, as we’ve mentioned, they’re around 30 years old. Politically speaking, it’s the first time that several of them will take on a leadership role within an institution, although many have experience in the student movement. In that sense, the 2011 student mobilizations were a key experience. This is obviously relevant in the case of the FA, but it’s recurring for the PC as well. The two new PC mayors in the metropolitan area (Lo Espejo and Central Santiago) were student leaders at the University of Chile. As such, the current elections reflect a phenomenon at the municipal level that’s already been seen in the parliament: a new generation of leaders, whether it be the FA or PC (the most well known case is that of Camila Vallejo, another ex-student leader at the University of Chile).

Along with youth, the presence of feminist leaders is also notable. Several of the recently elected mayors held leading roles in the feminist wave that emerged in Chile in 2018 and managed to deeply permeate the public debate. The Constitutional Convention was elected under strict parity guidelines that assured the equal participation of men and women. In this way, it’s not strange, for example, that the campaign slogan of the mayoral candidate in Ñuñoa, Emilia Ríos, was centered on “bringing feminism to the municipality.”

Lastly, a striking aspect of these winning candidates is that they are young professionals, having graduated from the best universities in Chile. On the one hand, these candidates represent the emergence of a new Chilean middle class, marked by universal access to higher education. On the other hand, they have also enabled  candidates on the Left—traditionally targeted in local spaces for their supposed inability to manage—to present themselves as a capable bureaucratic alternative to inefficiency, ineffectiveness, and the obvious corruption of local governments.

Why did those who voted for the FA-PC coalition vote the way they did? Specifically, one of the questions that has come up after the elections is the true identity of the FA, which, defying predictions, was far from being absorbed into the recent coalition with the PC. Voters apparently took notice of the FA’s strong identity, which, rather than being watered down into a communist identity, saw itself as complementary. It’s clearly a different identity than in 2017 when, politically speaking, it was more scattered and more so defined in terms of its opposition to traditional political forces. In this sense, the “new” Frente Amplio has less political breadth, but deeper relevance. Also, the signing of the deal that initiated the constituent process has remained unmistakably associated with the FA brand. What some saw as a liability has ended up consolidating the Frente Amplio’s more mature image.

If the PC has taken on the antagonistic role previously held by the FA, then the latter is consolidating its critical role in the renewal of organized society, clearly situated on the Left, but anchored in the republican sense of democracy and dialogue. So much so that one of the leading figures in the signing of the political agreement that outlined the Constitutional Convention, the congressman and former student leader Gabriel Boric, has been floated as their presidential candidate for this year’s November elections.

Some who had given up on the FA now see them as playing a crucial role in differentiating between what’s considered “new” and “old” in national politics. On the other hand, even though this new FA is more ideologically consistent and its leadership principles seem to have matured alongside the crisis and the losses of the last few years, it’s still not clear how they will approach this new political cycle, now that they have consolidated their base. Although an incipient, previously nonexistent, sense of frenteamplista militancy has begun to emerge, there remains a tendency toward polarization and propensity for ruptures within fragile institutional factions.

Amid the turmoil brought about by Chile’s new political landscape, moving past these tendencies will be a tough challenge for the coalition. Also, as much as the recent results reflect a stronger position relative to the general population’s assessment of this coalition, the FA largely won’t escape the criticism and complaints against political parties and the political system. As such, there is an urgent question regarding how to strengthen and integrate new forces, emerging since the national strike in the form of independent candidates, which have been the biggest winners in these elections.

The FA and the new Chilean Left are still far from being able to generate a consistent national majority that can govern the country. In any case, it seems like what the FA has secured is the opportunity to be part of a new chapter in Chilean politics. Now, it will have to show that, beyond local organizing and mobilizing voters, it’s capable of successfully managing the municipalities it governs. Voters have decided to give FA candidates an opportunity to do so, but they will not hesitate to abandon them if they fail. Moreover, parliamentary and presidential elections, which will be held in a few months, will be an important barometer of how consolidated popular opinion is around the FA. There’s no certainty in this regard. A coalition that has demonstrated strong and righteous conviction can easily make mistakes. “Doubt should follow conviction like a shadow,” is the Albert Camus quote that Boric often paraphrases as a mantra. It’s a good summary of the challenge that the new and improved Chilean Left faces.

Noam Titelman is an economist and doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He was president of the Students’ Federation at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (PUC) and currently is a member of the Revolución Democrática.

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