The Case of Chile
North and south. Black and white. Up and down. Opposites do not always attract, and this is especially true in politics. Polar opposites typically leave no room to budge. Yet when polar opposites do come together, it does not necessarily result in beginning of the end. For the citizens of Chile, the concept of political polarization has become a loud reality over the last year. Yet, the political divides in Chile have not yet come to a complete erosion of its democracy. Although there are many cases in which polarization has ended democracy, a brief look at the outcome of Chile’s political polarization shows that there are exceptions to the rule that extreme polarization is the road to democracy’s end.
How it all began:
On October 4, 2019, a sudden hike in the subway fare led to protests that began as small groups of high school students and ended in mass protesting in the streets for more economic and social equality. Although Chile has had one of the most robust economies in Latin American in recent years, income inequality is still high, with more than 30% of the population being “economically vulnerable”. The high rate of economic inequality within this democracy is the central topic over which Chilean political polarization grew.
Shortly after the protests began, Chile’s president, Sebastián Piñera declared a state of emergency throughout the nation and sent military and police forces to crackdown on these protests. Piñera’s response only added to the expanding division in Chile. These crackdown forces soon turned violent, as the police and military began to use excessive methods to suppress the citizens’ protests. Some of these violent methods even included the use of tear gas. Some people lost their lives during these protests.
What is going on now?
The conflict somewhat subsided with the outbreak of COVID-19 in Chile, and, ultimately, the end result was that Chileans voted, on October 25, 2020, to embark on the path towards a new constitution. Chile’s current constitution, written in 1980, is a reminder for many of Augusto Pinochet’s harsh militaristic rule from only a few decades before. As chosen by the citizens of Chile, the new constitution will be a two-year process. The first step will be the election of the 155 members of the constitutional convention on April 11, 2021. After this election, the convention will have nine months to write a draft for the constitution, on which all Chileans will be required to vote in 2022.
What the future holds:
Chile still has a long journey ahead before the new constitution is implemented, and there is no doubt that it will face challenges along the way. Chileans will have to elect the writers of their constitution that will accurately reflect the desires of the general public. In order to do so, elected officials will need to accurately represent their constituencies, whether they be Chileans who are economically vulnerable, of indigenous heritage, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, or from other groups that have been historically underrepresented in their government. Additionally, as the constitutional convention is writing the new constitution, there will be presidential and legislative elections in November of 2021. Voter education will be extremely important in 2021, as voters will not only have to educate themselves about the candidates for the constitutional convention, but they will also have to be prepared to elect a potentially new government shortly thereafter.
What does this mean for democracy?
Despite these past and upcoming challenges, it is important for the rest of the world to realize that in the case of Chile, democracy is not completely lost. It is true that Piñera’s military crackdowns on the protests were authoritarian in nature. It is also true that there were human rights violations as a result of these crackdowns. However, to a certain degree, democracy still exists in Chile. Free and fair elections have occurred, and, when the people spoke, they were rewarded with the benefits of this election: a new constitution. Furthermore, those who will write this new constitution will also be chosen by the people through a free and fair election.
Perhaps this level of polarization was needed to begin a change for better. Polarization is ugly at its worst. It is worth noting, however, that even though it can and has ended democracies throughout history, this is not always the case with polarization. The recent events in Chile may be a unique situation in which the scars of the authoritarian history are still fresh enough to serve as a reminder of what could happen if democracy is not handled carefully.
In summary, although polarization can be hideous at its most extreme points, it does not always have to end in the total demise of democracy. Chile has shown that democracy can win in the end, despite the separating lines of the past. As the nation of Chile slowly begins to heal from these political wounds, the world will watch to see if polarization can actually, somehow, continue to end in some good.
I think this is a really interesting article about polarization. However, I’d like to know a bit more about the specific nature of polarization in Chile, as you only really focus on economic inequality and how that’s polarized the nation. For example, in America, as we can see in Graham and Svolik’s study of polarization, the combination of partisanship and polarization together is what heavily influences the embrace of anti-democratic behavior among the populace, as they become incredibly reluctant to punish politicans acting against democarcy. What kind of party system exists in Chile at the moment. Are there other polarizing divides besides inequality? These are some of the questions I’d like to see. However, I think your general point is quite good that polarization isn’t always bad, especially not when it’s conditioned by fear of returning to a prior military/undemocratic regime. Perhaps, it reflects increased voter engagement with their democracy which can only be a good thing. Regardless, you make some intersting points and have made me want to research more thoroughly the situation in Chile.
Chile’s polarization is extremely interesting, especially when compared to that of the United States. Both countries have seen a rampant increase in their Gini coefficient scores representing their inequality. Chile has a unique history following the coup against Salvador Allende orchestrated by Henry Kissinger and the CIA in 1972 and the subsequent brutal Pinochet dictatorship. A dictatorship that saw the execution of thousands of leftist dissidents. This unjust system was amended when Pinochet stepped down but it was created at the behest of western corporations that wished to do business in Chile, often at the expense of the impoverished and vulnerable in society. This past makes one believe that perhaps this kind of polarization is simply one part of a moral arc that bends towards justice. We often view polarization as something inherently bad, but in a system that is unjust, centrism and status quo is just saying “things are fine how they are.”
Hello, Lauren! This was such an interesting read because it seems as if we in America have lots of the same issues that Chile has. Similarly, a lot of our protests and social counteractions have been led by younger groups of people and students. I find it interesting that it is this age group that actually gets out and advocates for the change they believe in. I think it shows how strong this generation is in making tangible change. Similarly with the United States, Chile responded with military charge on their protesters.
What is interesting is the fact they have to rewrite their constitution. I think this is great in order to cover all of the marginalized groups of the state. But, I do fear that this will be a resort that is turned to in the future whenever the state is in conflict again. You can’t just keep re-writing your constitution. It seems as if Chile is in deep social conflict, and it will be interesting to see what comes of it. Do you think that the rewriting of their constitution will result in any positive change? I can foresee the wrong people being elected and the conflict continue. But, I can also envision this is the solution to solving much of the inequality in the state.
Regarding Chile’s democracy, I think it will survive. I believe with the amount of social advocacy and voice, the people will not allow for someone to come in and be a figure head that takes over. I truly see the Chilean people as those who believe their voice matters. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be out in the streets protesting. Polarization is such a complex thing, but this read showed me that the United States isn’t alone in their fight for unity and equality. Hopefully, we can reach a solution and peace for a better future. Thanks for the great read!
Lauren, this was such an interesting article! I find myself conflicted over the good-heartedness of polarization as well. In a podcast I once listened to with Dr. Liliana Mason she basically explained how polarization was not initially a bad thing–or a threat to democracy, per se. Before the 1960s, political parties aligned themselves exclusively with economic issues. Ballots only really reflected an individual’s economic interests when other issues, such as racial inequality, required legislation and representation as well. Ultimately, the polarization of politics paved the way for the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter and a multitude of other social movements that would not represented by political candidates or parties if it wasn’t for forces of polarization. Discourse and protests forced politicians to adopt platforms on racial and social issues in order to secure their vote.
One of the questions that fascinated me was the validity of this argument in all cases, however. As you stated, Chile has had recent experiences with authoritarian regimes and suffered repercussions from them as well. I wonder if states who have recent bouts with aggressive authoritarianism are more likely to (a) utilize protests and riots as a form of a civil disobedience and (b) more likely to be successful using these methods. States in which authoritarian control has not been a recent threat are less likely to see democratic erosion as a valid or legitimate threat and probably have a much higher threshold for violent forms of civil disobedience. So while some states may see a return to democratic ideals after experiencing great violence in association with protests and riots, others may simply see no change at all or even see a strengthening of authoritarian control.
Overall, your article is incredible and posed some really fascinating points!
Chile has been described by journalists as well as by the citizens who live there as two countries in one. On one side there is the wealthy elites who have access to privatized education, health, and more. On the other side there are people living in poverty who do not have any access to education and rely on public health care. It is said that these two sides do not even see one another as they are geographically divided as well. This type of extreme polarization is brought on by these immensely unequal living conditions. Chiles economic system favors these wealthy people and completely ignores those who are struggling. I agree that democracy is not lost however, the massive protests that started last year is a democratic response to these problems. In a democracy people have the right to protest when their government is not providing for its people, and that exactly what they have done. The spirit of the people of Chile shows what democracy is really about and that politicians need to be held accountable.
With what you’ve presented in this article, I disagree that Chilean protests are an example of polarization. Polarization is the growing separation between major political parties’ ideology; this increased division often gets accompanied with shifts to more demeaning rhetoric of the political “other,” and partisan “slowdowns” or gridlocks in political governments. From what you’ve presented, you make no mention of political parties and instead only highlight the growing division between the people’s needs from the government’s wants. Perhaps this isn’t the case in real life, but in your article, the people seem detached from any political party; instead, they seem unified not against any specific party but against a frustrating government who acted almost unilaterally to increase bus fare. It’s possible Piñera and Piñera’s party have radically shifted the country right and may have left those in the previous political centre and leftwards behind. However, the article makes no mention of either Piñera’s ideology or party platform. It seems to me that there may be a misunderstanding in this article of the definition of polarization, perhaps instead defining it as the separation between people and government.
Instead of polarization, I would argue that the most worrying evidence of democratic backsliding in Chile is Piñera’s continued inability to hear the voice of the people. From the tone-deaf increase in bus fare that unrightfully jeopardized poor people to sending in military to violently, in some cases, end the protests as Piñera hopes to maintain control. These protests seem to be inherently democratic as they continue to give voice to the masses, are giving accountability to their leaders, and are even hoping to vote on issuing a new constitution. If the protestors get what they demand, then these protests will in fact be a great step forward in Chilean democracy.