Photo: El Mostrador
On August 21, Yasna Provoste, the President of the Chilean Senate, won her country’s center-left primaries. Securing 60 percent of the vote share, the Christian Democratic politician scored a resounding victory against opponents from the Socialist and Radical Parties. But while Provoste has managed to dominate the Unidad Constituyente (UC) primaries, her prospects in the general election are less promising.
The most glaring indication of UC’s direction is the timing of the center-left primaries. Chile’s left-wing and center-right coalitions—Apruebo Dignidad and Chile Vamos—held their primary elections on July 18, under the auspices of the National Electoral Service. Unidad Constituyente could not agree on a date to participate, so the coalition’s “non-legal” primaries took place a month later, a private affair without supervision from the electoral body. Turnout suffered as a result. Whereas the July 18 primaries attracted 3 million voters, the center-left election garnered only about 150,000 votes.
Now attention begins to turn to the parliamentary and presidential elections to be held on November 21 (with a likely run-off for president on December 19). There are, at present, seven candidates, of which three—Provoste, Gabriel Boric of Apruebo Dignidad, and Sebastián Sichel of Chile Vamos—stand a serious chance. In addition, smaller campaigns, such as that of José Antonio Kast on the far right and Marco Enríquez Ominami on the center-left, threaten to siphon off votes from the front-runners. For this reason, while it is likely that Boric and Sichel make it on to December’s run-off, a degree of uncertainty remains.
This uncertainty is underscored by a basic question: Has Chile shifted to the left? Here, too, there are conflicting signals, making it even harder for candidates to gain their bearings. While it is true that the Constituent Convention seems dominated by the left, the more recent primaries—both the legal and non-legal ones—appear to have favored more moderate candidates. Recent local elections also offered a big boost to the centrist Christian Democrats.
So what is going on with the Chilean left?
The answer lies in three distinct but related phenomena.
First, we continue to think in terms of an ideological axis that for some time now has made little sense: far left, center-left, center-right, etc. But what do these labels mean, in an age where a candidate on the “far-left” like Boric claims to value fiscal responsibility, while Sichel, on the right, approves of extending the Universal Family Income measure that costs the Chilean state between two and three billion dollars, something over 1 percent of GDP, every month. The truth is that like elsewhere, political positions in Chile are multidimensional. To claim, therefore, that Chileans have shifted to the left because they demand better healthcare in times of pandemic, more environmental regulation during a climate crisis, or de-privatized water rights when entire towns are denied access to drinking water, may or may not necessarily reflect a true ideological trend.
At the same time, there has been institutional reform, from voluntary voting to a change to the electoral system, which has facilitated the emergence of new political parties, the fragmentation of existing ones, and the reorganization of political coalitions. The old electoral system encouraged the formation of two massive blocks, acting as big tent parties, requiring internal mediation and conflict resolution (which was done with varying degrees of success). These rules no longer apply, and understandably, the group most affected is the one that most successfully navigated the old rules: the former Concertación—today, Unidad Constituyente.
Finally, the combination of the previous two trends have left the more traditional parties somewhat rudderless. Like old aircraft carriers, old parties are slow to turn around, and hard to refit. Their members are aging, their internal mechanisms are archaic, and their ideologies are stubbornly rooted in a past that makes little sense in the age of drones, droughts, and digital divides.
All of this leaves Provoste, a left-of-center Christian Democrat, competing for the center with a former Christian Democrat (Sichel) and for the center-left with Boric, who shot to prominence a decade ago as a student protesting the center-left’s educational policies. To paraphrase the former Chilean finance minister Rodrigo Valdés, Provoste must navigate on a narrow path bordered by neoliberalism on one side and on the other side a sort of left that has not worked very well in Latin America. At the same time, the path is under construction, being altered constantly by the Constitutional Convention. It’s no easy task.
Robert Funk is an academic, columnist and consultant based at the Instituto de Asuntos Públicos in the Universidad de Chile, where he teaches political science.