Chile 2021 Elections: Chile elects its president over rubble of social revolts | International

In Baquedano Square there is a pedestal without a statue. The equestrian figure of General Manuel Baquedano, hero of the Pacific War, was withdrawn in March. The absence is a symbol of the authorities’ defeat in preventing vandalism of the piece, a target of young people who since the October 2019 uprisings have maintained friction in this central area of ​​Santiago. The scars of disorder are still there, open: a ruined university headquarters occupied by homeless people, a ransacked four-story bakery, two burned churches and the completely destroyed Violeta Parra museum. Shops are barely visible behind the metal doors. To alert the unprepared, posters proliferate with the caption “we are attending”.

Destruction is on the streets for anyone to see. And it structures a good part of the political map that this Sunday will face at the polls to renew the Presidency, the Chamber of Deputies and half of the Senate. None of the seven candidates for La Moneda palace will get the 50% needed to win in the first round, according to polls 15 days ago (when the veto to publicize them came into effect), and the tie will be broken on December 19. Polls anticipate a final duel between José Antonio Kast, an ultra-rightist who did not cut the legacy of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, and Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old leftist militant of the Frente Amplio who has formed an alliance with the Communist Party. The first promises the recovery of lost peace, less State and more economic freedom, flavored with an anti-immigration and anti-abortion discourse and minority rights; the second proclaims itself heir to the student riots ―he was one of their leaders in 2011― and offers profound changes in education, the pension system and health.

Protesters are hit by a police water cannon during an anti-government protest in Santiago, Chile, on Friday, November 1, 2019.
Protesters are hit by a police water cannon during an anti-government protest in Santiago, Chile, on Friday, November 1, 2019. Rodrigo Abd (AP)

In this discussion, the center was left out, whether propped to the left or to the right. Its candidates are Sebastián Sichel, an independent who represents the president’s governing right, Sebastián Piñera; and Christian Democrat senator Yasna Provoste, political daughter of the vanished Combination of Parties that ruled Chile between 1990 and 2010. The electorate blames this alliance for the unresolved evils during the post-dictatorship transition, such as inequality and the absence of the State in key sectors. “The achievement of 2019, despite its origins in economic and social aspects, revealed a very acute institutional crisis, with the weakening of traditional parties that did not channel the discontent”, says Octavio Avendaño, sociologist at the University of Chile. In the list of victims are the Christian Democracy and also the Socialist Party. The right, which had Piñera as its sole representative in La Moneda, will step down from power in March with minimal popularity ratings. “Face to this, there is a social explosion that culminates in the constituent process in which we are now”, says Avendaño.

The Constituent Assembly was the political response to social discontent. Elected in May 2021, it opened its doors to independent forces and candidates, mostly on the left. Many of these forces have dissolved and are facing internal problems. They are responsible for drafting a new Constitution that will replace the one in force since 1980, when Pinochet imposed his political and economic legacy on Chileans in writing, even if reformed around fifty times in democracy. The Constituent Assembly’s agenda coincides with the demands of the revolts, but it lost firepower against the discontent. How can one explain that a candidate like Kast is firm in the polls, even ahead of Boric, when just six months ago Chile gave its majority electoral support to totally opposed candidates.

Baquedano square is popularly called Italia square. According to those speaking, it will also be Dignity Square. The entrance to the subway station is still closed, with graffiti that reminds it that it was once a battleground. A mural reads “Social War” in yellow letters under a skull in a police cap pierced by an arrow. The subway attack in October 2019 was a blow “to the backbone of the city”, says Iván Poduje, urban development specialist and author of the book Siete Kabezas (seven kabezas), a study on the consequences of the riots in the capital’s neighborhoods. On October 18, two years ago, protesters destroyed 27 of a total of 140. “The subway was able to repair much of the damage, but there are some traces of it. The most complex is located in 15 points in the capital where services, supermarkets and damaged businesses have not been built again. The economy that revolved around these peripheral neighborhoods died and insecurity grew”, he says.

“The explosion began to be seen by broad sectors as something that brought more pain, and not social transformation”, warns Christian Valdivieso, director of Criteria consultancy. Therefore, he adds, the political scenario is no longer that of 2019: “Today we are between two narratives: one transformative and the other restorative”. “There are two projects at stake,” adds Marcela Ríos, a political scientist in Chile at the United Nations Development Program. “There is a sector that wants to take the country to the moment before the explosion; there is another who wants to deepen the process, change the development model. That’s why this election will be very significant for the next few decades.”

The restoring spirit is found in the vote of Kast, who is not only in the upper class, but also in those who felt the violence in the streets was a threat to the little they had. The 15 points of Santiago that are still scorched earth demonstrate this. For this reason, “this impulse that came from the revolts has diminished”, says Marcela Ríos. “The pandemic had a lot to do with it, because without it the scenario might have been different. For example, the election of the Constituent Assembly would not be postponed and today we would have a presidential (election) with the text finished. There was also a change of conversation, of concerns. The revolt, for an important part of the population, was in the past”, he says.

If Kast is restoration, Boric is a shift into the unknown. Agustín Squella, philosopher and member of the Constituent Assembly for the moderate left, says that Boric “does not represent disorder [como diz a direita em sua campanha], but uncertainty, and not so much because of its proposals, as because it has shown itself to be changeable and because of the insane public statements of some of its spokespersons”. The candidate’s alliance with the Communist Party is what scares his electorate the most. A grouping statement in favor of Daniel Ortega’s electoral victory in Nicaragua, where all opposition candidates were arrested, forced Boric to voice his disagreement. The Communist Party, however, did not officially recant, as requested by the candidate. Kast, on the other hand, “is offering the currency of order in exchange for freedom, he takes advantage of the widespread annoyance of people with the continual manifestations of violence. This is the old game of the worst of the rights, who know very well when to come up with a trick like this”, says Squella. These two models from Chile will clash this Sunday at the polls.

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