Chileans Elect Gabriel Boric as New President, Reject Ultra-Conservative Candidate

Chileans on December 19 were facing a defining moment as they voted for a president to replace rightwing billionaire Sebastián Piñera whose second term is ending. Their choice of 35-year-old Gabriel Boric, social democratic candidate of the left-leaning Approve Dignity coalition, deflected the threat from devotees of Chile’s Pinochet dictatorship. They were backing billionaire José Antonio Kast, candidate of the Christian Social Front.

At stake were prospects for overcoming left-overs from the Pinochet dictatorship that ended in 1990. Policies in place had prompted massive protests in October 2019 and for weeks afterwards. Demonstrators demanded rights for youth, labor, pensioners, and indigenous people. They called for a new Constitution to replace the one imposed by the dictatorship. Under fire, the Pinera government prepared for a Constituent Assembly, which voters authorized in May, 20121.

Delegates to that Assembly are at work now presumably removing constitutional protection for Pinochet-era laws and regulations, neo-liberal in nature. With Kast as president, approval of a new constitution and then implementation would likely have been problematic.

Kast had secured 27.9 percent of the votes in the first-round of presidential elections on November 21. Second-place Boric had gained 25.8 percent. In the just-completed second round, Boric won 55.7 percent of the vote to Kast’s 44.3 percent of the total. Crucially, 55 percent of eligible Chileans voted; only 47 percent of them had done so in the first round. On that occasion seven political parties presented candidates.

Voter participation was the highest since authorization of voluntary voting in 2012. Since then, low attendance at the polls has been routine. Massive distrust of political parties is said to contribute to potential voters staying away. Political participation has overwhelmingly taken the form of involvement with social movements.

Social movements represented the main force behind both the watershed demonstrations that began in 2019 and the student-led mobilizations of 2008 and 2011. It’s likely that on December 19 politically unaffiliated activists voted in large enough numbers to give the presidency to Boric

Boric, who grew up in extreme southern Chile, drew attention in 2011 as one of the student leaders responsible for nationwide protests in 2011. He has served in the Chamber of Deputies in Chile’s Congress since 2014, having been the first to legislate there without party affiliation.

Speaking after his victory, Boric promised to defend the Constituent Assembly, to protect indigenous rights, support pension reform and public education, introduce universal healthcare, and work toward reducing wealth inequalities.

Primary elections in July, 2021 established Boric as a front-runner presidential candidate. Running on behalf of a center-left coalition that included his new “Social Convergence Party, he defeated Daniel Jadue, the Communist mayor of Recoleta and candidate of a leftist coalition led by the Communist Party. The two coalitions quickly merged to form the now victorious Approve Dignity formation.

Campaigning, candidate Kast based his appeal on anti-communism and condemnation of abortion. Family ties burnishing his ultra-rightwing credentials came to the fore. His brother had served the Pinochet dictatorship as economist, labor minister, and Central Bank head; his immigrant father was a member of Germany’s Nazi Party.

The disaster in store for Chile, had Kast been elected, was clear in a pre-election survey of his proposals for governing.  Kast, promising to “restore order,” wanted to “grant legal immunity to the armed forces and fund the legal defense of police officers accused of using excessive force; give the President sweeping powers to crack down on dissent; establish an International Anti-Radical Left Coalition; identify, arrest and prosecute radicalized troublemakers … [and] exit the United Nations.”

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.