[OPINIÓN] Gabriel Boric beat the far right in Chile. Now he has to unite a divided country

The former student firebrand will need all his powers of persuasion and pragmatism if he is to deliver

Por Kirsten Sehnbruch publicado en The Guardian

Victory is sweet. The hundreds of thousands of Chileans who took to the streets to celebrate the victory of the leftwing former student leader, Gabriel Boric, in Chile’s presidential runoff elections certainly thought so. Boric won with a 12-point margin and a historic number of votes, imposing a convincing defeat on the rightwing candidate José Antonio Kast that few would have predicted only a month ago. Yet Boric’s victory speech was anything but gloating.

Nodding towards the years of polarisation and protest leading up to the election, he stressed the need for “social cohesion, refinding ourselves, and sharing common ground”.

Earlier in his campaign he vowed to “bury neoliberalism”, sounding like the same revolutionary politician who led the social protests of 2011 and frustrated many parliamentary colleagues from traditional political parties during his eight years as a congressional deputy.

But his campaign in the runoff was characterised by the measured tones of a budding statesman. Boric demonstrated an extraordinary degree of pragmatism and a genuine ability to reach out to moderate voters and bring Chileans together during the most polarised election the country had experienced since the plebiscite that permitted the country to transition to democracy in 1988.

Many pundits were quick to highlight that the result of the election (Boric: 55.9%; Kast: 44.1%) mirrors that of the plebiscite (55.99% for a transition to democracy and 44.01% against). This was also clearly a highly polarised election. A 35-year-old, leftwing former student leader partially supported by a revolutionary student movement and the Communist party, up against an older politician associated with the dictatorship of General Pinochet, who clearly represented economic and political elites as well as extremely conservative social values.

It seemed Chile again faced a choice between a bold and risky move into an unknown but democratic future, or a return to an authoritarian anti-democratic past.

Kast’s first round campaign slogan “Atrévete” (roughly translated as “I dare you”) gave the extreme right licence to voice its views without shame. Trumpian tones threaded through his campaign, with threats that Chile would turn into a communist failure like Venezuela if the left won. A video by rightwing YouTuber Sebastián Izquierdo calling on Kast’s supporters to interfere fraudulently with the election went viral and is now being prosecuted by Chile’s election authority.

Ultimately, Kast unleashed the anti-democratic and authoritarian instincts of a rightwing political elite that feels profoundly threatened by the social protests and violence that have stunned Chileans in recent years. But extending this licence to his followers made it extremely difficult for Kast to persuade independent voters from the political centre of his democratic credentials, and his ability to – as his campaign slogan went – “make everything OK” (“Todo va a estar bien”).

By contrast, the second-round campaign of Boric successfully reached out to independents: his efforts, for example, to bring about a reconciliation between the political programmes of the primary candidates from the centre-left, coordinated by a widely respected and experienced Christian Democrat economist, Guillermo Larraín, signalled his willingness and ability to engage a broad sector of the political spectrum.

It was this effort – as well as the contrast with the authoritarian past of his opponent – that won him the support of prominent national and international economists, including Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty. In addition, the impressive efforts by his campaign coordinator, Izkia Siches, and student leaders from his generation, such as Camila Vallejos and Giorgio Jackson, coherently communicated a message of a better future (“Para vivir mejor”) to the Chilean electorate.

Their campaign demonstrated the pragmatic and generational – not ideological – coherence of this new band of politicians in Chile. Their positivity mirrored the democratic message of the 1988 plebiscite, and their margin of victory suggests that many independent voters were won over.

The president-elect captured this energy in his victory speech, which echoed the style of transition president Patricio Aylwin before him. His tone was profoundly conciliatory and aimed to bring Chile back from polarisation and return to the democratic centre.

Aware that he will have to govern with a Congress that is equally split between political factions, Boric emphasised his willingness to engage with all actors across the political spectrum, including his recent opponent, Kast. Knowing that he will have to collaborate with a constitutional assembly that is working hard to deepen democracy in Chile, he hit all the right notes: democracy, institutions, social inclusion, women’s rights, environmental sustainability, justice, truth, human rights and dialogue. Knowing that he has no majority in the Senate, however, led him to combine these themes with promises of fiscal responsibility and economic stability.

Gabriel Boric is promising Chile a lot. But the views of the young student leader have moved on, and he is no longer promising a social revolution. Instead, his actions and words indicate he is promising a rebirth of Chile’s economic, political and social structures. Sceptics (and financial markets) should take heart from the fact that Chile’s first transition from an authoritarian dictatorship to democracy in 1990 provided no guarantees either, but led to one of the most successful periods of development in Latin American history.

Now, Chile is embarking on a second transition, reinventing itself as a social market economy. Its political leaders will be able to build on the institutions, experience and capabilities that the country established during the past 31 years. Boric captured the historic moment perfectly in his victory speech. Now he will have to work out the practicalities of how to deliver.

  • Kirsten Sehnbruch is a British Academy global professor at the International Inequalities Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and co-editor of Democratic Chile: The Politics and Policies of a Historic Coalition.


[CERRADA] Investigador postdoctoral Instituto de Estudios Urbanos y Territoriales PUC – COES


[NOTA] El territorio de la memoria


[PRENSA] Alejandra Luneke: «el 80% rechaza el uso de la fuerza policial en contexto de manifestaciones, mientras que al 75% de la población le da rabia la actuación de Carabineros»

Cristian Pedrero G