/ 30 May 2021

Chile’s political earthquake uncovers the non-traditional left

Chile Crisis Protest Vina Music Festival
Demonstrators are seen in a barricade during a protest against Chilean President Sebastian Pinera's government in Vina del Mar, on February 23, 2020, during the Vina del Mar Music Festival. (Photo by MARTIN BERNETTI / AFP)

Six weeks into the now-historic Chilean 2019-20 uprising, we expressed the euphoric words that “the collective consciousness of the nation has undergone a seismic shift’’ (Mail & Guardian, 31 December 2019). We said it was “a groundswell of history in the making’’. 

A long and tumultuous year later, the groundswell has become a tidal wave, exceeding all expectations. As it transpired, nothing could stop this groundswell, not Covid, not the lockdowns and not even the strenuous resistance and repression by the government of Sebastián Piñera and the broad right. 

As a result of the uprising, Chileans voted on 15 and 16 May 2021 for a 155-seat constitutional assembly to forge a new constitution, along with electing governors, mayors and councillors across the country — with dramatic outcomes. 

A political earthquake

The now often-used description of the electoral outcomes as a “political earthquake” is apt. It constituted a fundamental rejection of the political and business elite, along with other mainstream organisations both to the left and right. It was also a decisive vote against the neoliberal policies and practices triggered by the Pinochet regime 50 years ago. 

Importantly, the right-wing coalition fell short of attaining one-third representation in the constitutional assembly, which would have enabled it to veto decisions. They only obtained 37 seats, or 23%, with candidates heavily funded by business. 

The independents obtained 48 seats, constituting almost one-third (31%). The leftist parties constituting a grouping — the Lista Apruebo Dignidad, which includes the Communist Party and the Frente Amplio — obtained 28 seats. 

The mainstream opposition parties grouped in the Lista del Apruebo obtained 25 seats. Indigenous peoples were reserved 17 seats. This means the two left coalitions, the independents and the Apruebo Dignidad, dominate the assembly. 

This dramatic trend was also manifested in the elections for governors, mayors and councillors, changing the face of Chile virtually overnight. 

In the view of an activist lawyer from Santiago, a key informant for this article: “Everyone is saying that the shift to the left is very clear’’. 

Another important feature is the fact that gender parity for the constitutional assembly was achieved by the feminist movement, a world first. Many more women than usual ran as candidates for the various positions. A large proportion of women were elected to the constituent assembly, so much so that some women now have to give seats to men to achieve gender parity!

Many representatives to the constitutional assembly have committed themselves to strive for a feminist constitution. This could mean, for example, the inclusion of parity as a constitutional principle to be applied to all state institutions and could have far-reaching effects in constitution-making. In addition, indigenous peoples will now for the first time have a strong voice in writing the country’s new constitution.

Who are the victors, why were they so well supported and what are the implications looking ahead? 

A victory for the non-traditional left and anti-neoliberalism 

This was a victory for the people that now make up the non-traditional left in Chile, along with the left-orientated political parties. This layer has a number of important characteristics that make this election profoundly important, not only for Chile, but more broadly. 

Firstly, neoliberalism was the key issue focused on across the various groupings and parties, with anti-neoliberal perspectives being clearly expressed. In fact, the battle lines have been drawn around this issue. In addition, a strong feminist perspective prevails. This constituency is also young, with an average age for constituent assembly members at 45. 

It thus can be said that the election results were a victory for the feminist movement, for anti-neoliberalism and for the youth. 

Candidates from this constituency campaigned on issues, spoke a language and expressed sentiments that resonated with voters. Candidates were respected for having a record of being on the streets, interacting. This applied both for assembly seats and those for governors, mayors and councillors. Linked to this, people, and in particular the youth, did not vote along traditional lines, rather supporting candidates that appealed to their direct interests and their vision of a new society. 

The non-traditional left

What is termed the non-traditional left are the people who stood as independents in the elections, and their supporters. They consist of diverse people from all walks of life who came together in the uprising. Leading up to the elections the independents formed themselves into a grouping called La Lista del Pueblo. An important layer within this grouping are the radical independents, who spearheaded this initiative. 

In addition to professionals now holding seats, such as lawyers and journalists, there is, for example, a woman school bus driver who became known for her role in demonstrations dressed up as a children’s character. She has been presenting the reality of people such as herself who could not afford to go to university. Another example is a man who has been living with leukemia for seven years and who has interacted intensively with the public healthcare system and its realities. 

Overall, the independents now holding positions engaged with issues and concerns close to the realities of Chilean people and their common rejection of the neoliberal order. 

A victory as well for left parties out of the mainstream 

In addition to the right, another casualty of the elections were the parties forming the historical political alliance the Nueva Mayoría (previously Concertación, linked to Michelle Bachelet’s last centre-left government). The notable exception is the Frente Amplio, a coalition of left-orientated parties coming from the student uprisings over the past decade. The other political party on the left that received support is the Chilean Communist Party, which remained steadfastly independent from other parties in events leading up to last week. 

In the view of the communist re-elected mayor of the Recoleta district in Santiago, Daniel Jadue: “The dividing line among the opposition parties runs along those which clearly reject the neoliberal model and those who support the model.” 

In the view of the activist lawyer from central Santiago, the Frente Amplio and the Communist Party enjoyed support not only for their political stance but also due to fielding young, dynamic candidates who connected to people on the street. 

Citing the example of 30-year-old Irací Hassler from the Communist Party who won the mayoral seat for central Santiago, he said: “She was a member of the cabildo (local assembly) and she was in the street all the time. She was supported not because of the Communist Party but more because she was connected.” 

People vote at a polling station during elections to choose mayors, councillors and a commission to rewrite the constitution in Santiago, on May 15, 2021. (Photo by RODRIGO ARANGUA / AFP)

Re-energising the left

This development has dramatically brought to centre stage a new left formation, constituting what has been termed the “non-traditional left” and some established political parties, underpinned by a set of common political perspectives. This can provide direction for the broad left in Chile, not forgetting the challenges ahead, while it will be the cause for much introspection for some. This includes the trade union movement, whose key representatives in the Unidad Social, a trade union/civil society coalition, were not elected. 

A tectonic political shift has happened, with the ascendency of a new left vision. The main elements of this vision arguably differ from that of the more traditional left, such as prevailed for the brief and tragic period when Salvador Allende came to power in 1970. Compared to the historical period encompassing the three-year period Allende’s socialist government was in power, which ended abruptly in the military coup, a different world now prevails in Chile (and beyond). 

This encompasses a range of factors, such as the destruction of work, greatly increased environmental degradation and from a positive perspective, the growth of the feminist movement, with this all underpinned by the Chilean neoliberal project. The evolving elements of this new left vision have been informed by these factors and others, such as the deep distrust of the mainstream both to the left and right.   

This development stands to have impact beyond Chilean borders, with learnings to be gleaned while the process unfolds. It hopefully will also inspire the masses of people and in particular women and youth, within Latin America and beyond.