On November 21, 2021, Chile conducted general elections, which included presidential, parliamentary, and regional elections. The general elections were conducted in the midst of a democratic legitimacy crisis that emerged in 2019 with large-scale mass protests about inequality and political unrest. Because the popular running candidates represented far ends of the ideological spectrum and their opinions on political matters such as proposing a new constitution, the election was seen as the most polarized election in Chile’s modern history, deviating from political normality. Gabriel Boric, a former left-wing student activist won the presidential election in the second round by getting almost 56% of the votes and considers himself as the president of “all Chileans”. His political agenda for the presidency includes reducing inequalities and increasing the quality of democracy and now the country is heading to a referendum in the first 6 months of Boric’s term to rewrite the current constitution that fuels democratic backsliding and structural inequality driving polarization.
Since the reintroduction of civilian authority in 1990, after Augusto Pinochet, the former dictator who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990 and killed, disappeared, and exiled thousands of Chileans, the country has become a stable democracy with considerable expansions in political rights and civil liberties. However, the Chilean 2021 general elections were taking place amid a democratic legitimacy crisis that erupted in 2019 with major street protests over inequality and political discontent. The main drivers behind the protests were mostly the structural inequality and economic hardships that are deepened by the pandemic. Over the years, the country’s political elites have consistently failed to modernize political parties and incorporate younger generations and other marginalized groups in the political decision-making process. This situation fueled the increase of democratic backsliding and polarization in Chile.
Following the 2019 protests, officials from Chile’s major political parties announced an agreement to replace the 1980 constitution, which Pinochet had enacted. The agreement appeared to begin a new age of politics, one in which the goal is to restore faith in institutions and create a more inclusive democratic system, overcoming the dictatorship’s legacies. Along with these developments, the election was considered the most polarized election that deviates from the political normality in the modern history of Chile, because the popular running candidates were the representatives of far points of the ideological spectrum and their stances are the exact opposites of each other on political issues such as adopting a new constitution.
The general elections including the presidential, parliamentary, and regional elections in Chile was held on November 21, 2021. Gabriel Boric, who is a former anti-government student movement leader, a member of the left-wing Social Convergence Party, and former lower house deputy, and Jose Antonio Kast, who is a right-wing populist politician from the far-right Republican Party and former lower house deputy were the two running candidates who stayed in the second round of the presidential elections. Kast won the first round by getting almost 28% of the votes while Boric was getting 26% of the votes, however in the second round which took place on December 19, 2021, Boric won the presidential election by getting almost 56% of the votes. In comparison to the first round, an additional 1.2 million Chileans voted on Sunday, bringing turnout to nearly 56 percent, the highest since mandatory voting ended in 2012.
Gabriel Boric was elected in his 35 as the youngest-ever president of Chile. His social democrat political agenda incorporates reforming the pension system, advancing LGBTQ and women’s rights, combating climate change, and raising mining royalties and corporate taxes to overcome inequality. Moreover, he believes that structural inequality derives from the 1980 Pinochet era constitution and supports amending the constitution. On the other hand, his opponent Kast wants to preserve the current constitution and he is known for his law-and-order approach, championing security, esteem for Pinochet, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-abortion stances.
If Kast had won on December 19, Chileans’ dissatisfaction with insufficient pensions, healthcare, and employment would not go away. During the COVID-19 epidemic, economic hardship and social inequality have gotten worse. Kast’s negligence to these issues would undoubtedly spark protests, but the far-right contender has stated that any disruption would be met with strong retaliation from his government. This might lead to a deadly cycle of violence, protest, and repression in Chile, putting democracy under strain by further polarizing society and eroding institutional dispute resolution mechanisms.
The constitution convention referendum will take place in the first six months of Boric’s term starting in March 2022. The referendum is important in terms of reducing the structural inequality backed by the 1980 constitution that fuels polarization because, with the new constitution, the political decision-making process can be more inclusive, equal, and democratic as well. Gabriel Boric used more unifying political discourse throughout the election campaigns and reducing polarization was one of the main promises he gave. If he could maintain this attitude and receive public support in the referendum, he would be able to halt democratic backsliding. Additionally, the presidential office has significant powers such as declaring a state of emergency, assigning all members of the constitutional court without any confirmation process with the 1980 constitution that grants increased legislation power to the presidency. With the new constitution, this situation could be reversed, and the quality of democracy can be increased if the redistribution of power can be achieved. However, there is a possibility that Boric can be prevented from altering the political normality by the highly fragmented congress and the senate. He should maintain his unifying approach and try to get support from the legislation as well to make structural adjustments for reducing democratic backsliding.
Hudson, R. A. (1994). Chile: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress. http://countrystudies.us/chile/
Al Jazeera. (2021, December 20). Gabriel Boric wins Chile’s presidential election. Retrieved from Al Jazeera News: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/12/20/gabriel-boric-wins-chiles-presidential-election
Pribble, J. (2021, December 17). Chilean democracy faces a critical test. Retrieved from Al Jazeera News: https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2021/12/17/chilean-democracy-faces-a-critical-test
Photo by Jose Pereira, Progressive International, The Left Is Still Favored to Win Chile’s Presidency, Creative Commons Licence