Photo Source: Reuters via BBC
All eyes were on Chile’s presidential election on December 19. The results were decisive. With 56 percent of the vote in the second round, Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old whose political career began by organizing student protests a decade ago, clinched victory. His opponent José Antonio Kast, an ultra-conservative politician and supporter of Chile’s former dictatorship, took his loss gracefully by meeting with Boric shortly after conceding defeat. Chile’s center-right president and incumbent, Sebastián Piñera, also shared his congratulations, highlighting that the election had the highest voter turnout in many years.
Such messaging speaks volumes to the country’s commitment to the peaceful transfer of power and to democracy itself. Boric’s victory represents the eighth time a democratically elected president will take office since the end of military rule in 1990. As the votes were tallied, a sense of humility among the candidates was a welcome return to best practices for any democratic election, especially given the divisive and brutally polarizing season that Chileans endured.
Following on the heels of the Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy, Chile’s election illustrates the crux of a common challenge facing most democratic nations today. It also provides hope and optimism for the future. With the pandemic and its economic consequences hitting Latin America particularly hard, democracy is in a fragile place. The viral spread of disinformation across political and media environments has upended traditional campaigns. The electorate is therefore left without objective policy discussions and instead feeds on loud populist rhetoric, exacerbating political differences and increasing polarization across society.
Often cited examples include Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, but other countries in Latin America—from El Salvador’s Bukele to toxic disinformation in Chile’s latest election, have become part of a global phenomenon. As President Biden warned in his opening remarks during the Summit for Democracy, “voices that seek to fan the flame of societal division and political polarization,” are on the rise and the most worrying trend of all is that these voices are “increasing the dissatisfaction of people all around the world with democratic governments that they feel are failing to deliver for their needs.”
Failure to Deliver
There is perhaps no greater sense that the government has failed to deliver than in Chile, which has seen dramatic political developments in the last two years. While the large-scale protests of 2019 and 2020 known as estallido social or “social outbreak” may have come as a surprise to those outside Chile, the dissatisfaction with the political and economic elite had been brewing internally for many years.
Growing concern over economic inequality and major corruption cases connecting politicians and the business community became emblematic of a new social awakening. Chileans themselves began to question their society and its perceived model of success. However, as the debate over economic and political reforms in Chile is still ongoing, the fact of the matter is that Chilean democracy is quite alive and robust—an example for the region if not the world to follow.
After an intense race, Kast in his concession speech stated that President-elect Boric “deserves all our respect. Many Chileans put their trust in him … and in what we can contribute, despite our legitimate differences; we want to provide to the nation. We must all unite as Chileans once again.” The symbolism of Chile’s democratic renewal against the backdrop of popular protest and political polarization cannot be underscored enough, for its meaning in Chile as well as the rest of Latin America.
The mobilization of political groups since protests broke out in 2019 has resulted in an empowered constitutional convention composed of mostly independent, leftist delegates and now the youngest president ever to serve in Chile’s presidential palace, La Moneda. More importantly, however, Chile’s election and its constitutional convention represent an outlier in a region where authoritarianism and humanitarian challenges often drown out such optimism for the future of democracy—where women, Indigenous communities, immigrants, LGTBQ+ people, and other diverse groups were not only recognized, but were championed as key protagonists in the growing calls for social, economic, and political reform.
Kast’s brand of conservatism and traditional values failed to entice the electorate. And Boric’s 12-point lead indicates that while a mandate may likely be in order, Chile’s new president will need to govern a broad coalition of political forces amidst immediate challenges—such as vaccination against the Omicron variant; ensuring a smooth transition for a constitutional re-write and referendum no later than July 5, 2022; and delivering on campaign promises to tackle economic inequality, improve social services, and address the climate crisis.
Latin America’s New Millennial Left
While it has not been clearly defined as such or perhaps accepted as a realistic outcome, the rise of social democracy in Chile is undoubtedly coming into view. The country’s new millennial left has rejected the status quo of free-market economics alongside the virtues of centrist, market-based policies, which proponents have argued made the country richer than in decades past. Indeed, the country’s level of poverty has fallen by an extraordinary degree since the return of democracy: from approximately 48 percent of Chileans living below the poverty line in 1988 to approximately 11 percent in 2020.
While inequality has decreased amid Chile’s efforts at poverty alleviation, Chile remains one of the most unequal countries in the OECD. Social mobility has become a major concern across all sectors of society as the pandemic has reinforced structural inequality and further exposed gaps in the labor market. The question that remains for many following Chile is to what degree the new government will adjust the country’s highly touted economic model and what might replace it? Furthermore, what will it mean for Latin America?
Much like in the United States, generational attitudes and political preferences are rapidly shifting. A key demographic that supported Boric’s candidacy included young people who were not yet born during the late 1980s, when activists fought for democracy and organized a referendum to end the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Today’s youth have called for far more progressive policies than have been delivered by the country’s center-left coalition, which has governed for much of the past three decades.
Similarly, there has been a convergence among cash-strapped, indebted university students and the lowest income tiers of society in Chile, groups that do not necessarily share a worldview that prioritizes economic growth over social welfare. In many ways, Chilean youth are part of a global trend, which further illustrates Boric’s meteoric rise in politics. According to the Deloitte Global 2021 Millennial and GenZ Survey, “two-thirds of millennials and Gen Zs see wealth and income as unequally distributed in society and a majority believe legislation and direct government intervention would significantly close the gap.”
As a major slogan of the 2019 social protests, initially sparked by a 30-peso increase in the metro fare, contended, “It’s not 30 pesos, but 30 years of indifference.” What motivated people to take to the streets varied, but channeling this popular sentiment has now taken the form of a progressive president-elect and a reformist process for the country’s 1980 constitution established under military rule. The prospect of a new millennial left could soon emerge in Latin America based on Boric’s ability to leverage different and sometimes opposing political forces from moderate Christian Democrats to members of the Chilean Communist Party.
What is indeed unlikely for Chile is a rapid descent into the authoritarian and deeply troubling outcome of its regional neighbors, Venezuela and Nicaragua. It is much more likely that President-elect Boric, to avoid confronting a conservative backlash and risking capital flight, will portend a more moderate, nevertheless progressive tilt to his government’s early agenda.
President-elect Boric will need to make clear that economic growth and social cohesion need not be mutually exclusive. To be effective, his incoming government will need to channel social discontent from the estallido social of 2019 into a broader conversation on social policy, economic development, and the future of the country’s image at home in Latin America—and elsewhere in the world—as a case for and not against social democracy.
Governments afar, from Canada to Germany to New Zealand, and of course the often-cited Nordic countries, have all based a market-led model within a welfare state that services its citizens through universal public healthcare, public pensions, and public institutions of higher education, and much, much more. Chile may pursue something similar, but investors are worried over the degree of these reforms, the speed of their implementation, and the question of how to pay for them.
During his bid to bring Argentina back from the brink of continual economic collapse and large fiscal deficits, former President Mauricio Macri touted “gradualismo” as a way to ever so slightly make necessary policy reforms. Of course, this form of economic gradualism went out the door when there was a run on the Argentine peso. However, the incoming government in neighboring Chile may do well to roll out a similar strategy to communicate its concerns and goals for transforming Chile into a more prosperous, equitable, and successful country in a region mired in economic challenges.
Within Latin America and the Caribbean, Chile could become the first country to show that strong democratic governance and institutions aligned with markets and social policies working together, can indeed achieve results. By demonstrating that the anti-democratic, so-called socialist governments of Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba are anything but a model for the region to follow, Chile could become a global beacon for a younger generation of social democrats, inspiring new leaders from Brazil to Belarus.
However, to do so, Boric will need to find balance as well as inspiration for a brighter, inclusive, and more modern Chilean model in the years to come.
Anders Beal is an associate in the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program in Washington, D.C. The views expressed are those of the author.