Newly elected Chilean President Gabriel Boric draws an explicitly progressive image on many common social issues such as indigenous rights, gender equality, environment, and the LGBT rights. However, his addresses on economy often end up on the populist side of the spectrum. With no majority in Congress, he promises to “bury neoliberalism,” and to introduce a welfare state, revolutionary health, and tax reforms.
Located in the western portion of South America, Chile, officially the Republic of Chile, is a country of striking natural beauty with a coastline stretching for over 4,000 miles. Widely known for its wine production, many gorgeous beaches, memorable landscapes, and unusual territorial shape, Chile has long been one of the most stable and economically successful countries in the continent. In spite of the nationwide protests that engulfed the country in 2019 (Economist, 2019), Chile still leads Latin America in political stability, political and civil freedom, economic growth, reduction of poverty, human development, and economic freedom (Richards, 1997). Additionally, compared to the trends in regional neighbors, Chilean voters have been relatively immune to the spell of populist politics until recently (World Bank, 2019).
Scholars have argued that the lack of populism in the country is partly the result of its institutionalized political parties, as well as its pragmatic economic model that has produced one of the highest qualities of life in Latin America (Takoushian, 2019). Others also believe that the inefficacy of the country’s Marxist government in the 1970s also contributed to the lack of populism taking hold (Drake, 2012). Whatever the reason, Chilean populists had indeed failed to unlock a viable political space in the country’s political landscape since the beginning of the 21st century. The December 2021 general election, however, has seem to have turned a new page in the Chilean politics. With the election of a left-wing president Gabriel Boric, many now raises concern as to whether there is a new Pink Tide on Latin America’s horizon.
In the 1920s, Arturo Fortunato Alessandri Palma assumed the country’s presidency after a populist campaign that appealed to the working class at the expense of established elites. His presidential campaign was dominated by pledges to the poor, a clear defiance of the ruling elites. In his public speeches, he often emphasized the distinction between the true people of the country and “the corrupt oligarchs,” who held the power and influence in the political sphere (Sutil, 2020). Alessandri believed that the Senate and the military were opposed to his presidency and thus often tried to discredit themin the eyes of the public.
With the Great Depression hitting the country, the early 1930s saw the rise of Chilean socialism. In 1933, the Socialist Party (PS) was established by Colonel Marmaduque Grove and several other leading politicians. Combining socialist ideas with populist speeches, the Chilean socialists appealed to the country’s working and middle classes, who were already searching for a balm for the devastating effects of the global depression. The PS also effectively used Colonel Grove’s personal charisma and influence. The party’s program was highly dominated by many familiar populist features, such as nationalist and anti-imperialist doctrines as well as an endorsement of personalist leadership and a rejection of the status quo and the established order. Wide-spread nationalization of foreign enterprises was also among the party’s goals.
In 1937, the Chilean people witnessed the rise of a left-wing electoral coalition known as the Popular Front. The coalition was formed by five political parties – the Radical Party, the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the Democratic Party, and the Radical Socialist Party – and several social and trade organizations. With the formation of the Popular Front, revolutionary, anti-establishment leftist parties managed to unlock a viable space in the country’s political sphere. They found a ground to actualize the populist mobilization of the working class that they had long sought and advocated for. During its time in power, from 1938 to 1941, the Popular Front promoted “import substitution industrialization,” while introducing widescale welfare reforms for the working and urban middle classes (Hudson, 1994). The Front also created a government institution known as the Production Development Corporation with the aim of providing new enterprises with loans (Hudson, 1994).
In 1952, another populist wave swept through Chile, when Carlos Ibáñez del Campo, a former General and politician, ran for president under the banner of the Agrarian Labor Party (ALP). His election campaign was heavily dominated by anti-establishment speeches that accused the ruling elites of engaging in corruption. He made repeated pledges to “sweep away” the established political parties and their corrupt practices (Sutil, 2020). Ibáñez won the 1952 election with 47 percent of all votes. While his voter base was mainly composed of the poor and uneducated, he also managed to secure significant support from different political and social camps. His populist economic and social pledges, however, began to give way to more conservative politics during the second half of his presidency. He eventually attempted to improve relations with the United States and foreign investors (Hudson, 1994). He also established an authoritarian and personalist rule, often bypassing the legislative branch by signing executive actions on many major issues (Freidenberg, 2007). At the time, Ibáñez had strong relations with the populist leaders of neighbouring countries, such as Argentina’s President Juan Domingo Perón. It was revealed that in one of the letters Peron wrote for Ibanez, he encouraged him to continue his fight against the “oligarchs who sell their nations” to the imperialist enemies: “To defeat them you need the people […] Give the people, especially the workers, all you can,” Peron wrote (Escrito por Juan Domingo Perón, 1953).
Many scholars believe that populism made a partial comeback in Chile with Salvador Allende’s short-lived presidency, from November 1970 until his death in 1973 (Meller, 1996). During his time in the office, Allende carried out a series of socialist reforms known as La vía chilena al socialismo – the Chilean Path to Socialism. The reforms included the nationalization of many copper mining companies and foreign banks, as well as a full government takeover of the health care and education sectors in the country (Collier, Sater, 1996). He also enacted social service and welfare programs for the disadvantaged. Allende’s party, Popular Unity (UP) was also clear that US influence and Chile’s dependence on the IMF had to be terminated (Programa de la Unidad Popular, 1970). “No more ties with the International Monetary Fund. We will cancel all commitments,” the party program announced (Programa de la Unidad Popular). Needless to say, many of these socialist reforms were often reinforced by populist rhetoric.
Allende’s presidency, however, was cut short with a coup d’état in 1973 led by Chief of Staff General Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte. Following the coup, Pinochet established a brutal regime that lasted until 1989. His seventeen year-long dictatorship left behind a trail of well-documented cases of abuses of power, corruption, and human rights violations, including at least 3,428 cases of disappearance, killing, torture, and kidnapping (Truth Commission: Chile 90).The Pinochet era was also characterized by strict censorship and curfews, oppression of the opposition, and the halt of all civil and political activities. It should however be noted that the lack of electoral concerns provided the Pinochet regime with the liberty to follow a non-populist playbook, which included a free market economic policy and painful cuts to social benefits.
After almost seventeen years of military rule, in 1989, Patricio Aylwin was elected president with over 55 percent of the total vote. His election marked the beginning of a historical period in which Chile enjoyed high economic growth rates, human development, and peace. This period that lasted until 2015 and was largely immune to the waves of populism elsewhere in Latin America (Larroulet, 2017). Even during the first presidency of the right-wing Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014), populism was mostly absent from Chilean politics. Instead, Piñera opted to carry out a fiscal austerity program based on a series of economic and social reforms.
Non-populist politics continued to dominate Chile until the second presidency of Michelle Bachelet. When she again assumed the presidency in 2014, she set out to implement economical, institutional, and constitutional changes in order to construct a “new culture” in response to the neoliberal policies implemented by the military regime and the civilian governments of the 2000s, (Benedikter, Siepmann, Zlosilo, 2016). She unsuccessfully introduced an educational reform package that introduced “free university education” as a populist response to the 2011–13 Chilean student protests. She also carried out a labour reform to grant more power to workers’ unions and tax reform, as part of which corporate tax rates were increased from 20 percent to 25 percent. Her tax reforms were criticized by many for paving the way for discouraging investors, which slowed down economic growth. Her reforms were also heavily dominated by traditional populist rhetoric, which emphasised Bachelet’s direct appeal to the true people of the country at the expense of the corrupt elites. Populist traces could easily be found in many of her speeches as well as in her government programme.
In 2018, Miguel Juan Sebastián Piñera Echenique won the second round of the presidential election, becoming president for the second time. Despite social conditions favourable to the rise of populism, Piñera had refused to follow a populist playbook. In late 2019, Pinera’s government faced a series of mass and at times violent protests against economic inequality and the neoliberal economic model (DW, 2020). Protestors complained about expensive health care, education, and the lack of state subsidies. Many protests featured mass calls for the president’s resignation and an end to his “neoliberal” economic policies (Wolfe, 2020).
In response, the Piñera government declared a state of emergency and used force against protesters. In 2020, the coronavirus crisis hit the country hard, with almost half a million cases reported as of September 2020. In response, Piñera announced $4.5 billion in additional stimulus spending to counter the negative impact of the pandemic. During a major speech in June 2020, he called on the Chilean voters not to seek populist solutions to the deteriorating conditions: “The entire world is being threatened by populism, which always offers the easy path of rights without duties, of achievements without effort,” he said, before warning against “promises of easy solutions to difficult problems” (Reuters, 2020).
The December 2021 general election has turned a new page in the Chilean politics. Gabriel Boric, a former student leader, become the country’s youngest-ever democratically elected president after securing some 55 percent of total votes against his Republican rival, José Antonio Kast. As a left-wing politician, Boric entered active politics with the 2013 parliamentary election, in which he was elected as an independent deputy for the lower house of Chile’s bicameral Congress. During his time in the office, he had often held key positions in commissions that focused on human rights, indigenous peoples’ rights, environment and labour and social security issues. He also became a key figure in the 2011–2013 student protests as well as in the 2019 civil unrest.
In surprise to pretty much no one, Boric’s election victory has triggered the good-old discussion of a potential new “pink tide” by the Latin America’s left. Based on his public addresses that are heavily denoted by populist themes, many raises concern as to whether democratic institutions would be put to the test during the Boric’s presidency. For now, he “guarantees” that he will care for democratic values and refrain from any action that would risk them (Cambero, Esposito & Miranda, 2021). He, indeed, draws an explicitly progressive image on many common social issues such as indigenous rights, gender equality, environment, and the LGBT rights. On the other hand, however, his addresses on economy often end up on the populist side of the spectrum. With no majority in Congress, he promises to “bury neoliberalism,” and to introduce a welfare state, revolutionary health, and tax reforms (The Economist, 2021).
In terms of civil and political liberties, Chile is considered a free country (Freedom House, 2020). As one of the longest standing democracies in Latin America, political liberties are widely respected, and Chilean voters enjoy regular and competitive multiparty elections. The country also scores highly when it comes to personal freedom of certain disadvantaged groups, including the LGBTQ+ community. Same-sex sexual activity has been legal since 1999. In 2013, Chile’s Health Ministry removed a ban on gay and lesbian blood donations. Chile was ranked among the top 25 countries in the world with the most freedom. It should however be noted that state-sponsored violence was evident during the national protests in 2019. Amnesty International revealed credible reports regarding the “misuse of weapons” against the protesters (Amnesty, 2020). For now, it is safe to say only time will reveal the future conditions of the civil and political freedoms in country.
October 5, 2020.
Updated on January 11, 2022
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