The Election in Chile Has Produced Insomnia

By Facundo Ortiz Núñez on May 17, 2021

‘I approve for my class’ Photo: Frente Fotographico

It was a surprise that crumbled the forecasts of all analysts: this weekend’s elections in Chile confirmed what was experienced in 2019 during the street rebellion. The right did not achieve the necessary third to veto in the constituent assembly and the political structure of the country changed, perhaps irreversibly, with the emergence of new constituent forces and a notable shift to the left. This chronicle written from Valparaíso during the sleeplessness of last Sunday night offers a precise account to understand the new map of a Chile that will now have to face the transcendental presidential elections in November.

Chile celebrated this weekend its “macro-elections”, from which more than 2,700 positions will filled, including councilmen, mayors, governors and constituents, a curious consequence of the most anti-institutional mobilization period of the country in decades. The forces inherited from the dictatorship had tried everything to stop the wave of change. Declare a State of Exception and remove the “milicos”. Emptying the streets with, tear gas and pellets. Blind and imprison the rebellious kids. All to tie up a constitutional process to ensure a share of power. They filled it with traps and obstacles to limit real democracy. Money rained on their candidates to privilege them in the campaign and silence the unknown. But nothing helped them. The Chileans who expressed themselves yesterday sent, for the umpteenth time, the same message that has been repeated since the outbreak of October 2019.

The new constitution will not be written by the same as usual, those who governed for 30 years with the text bequeathed to them by Pinochet. It will be the independents who will hold the key to the future of Chile. Among them are judges critical of the current justice system, such as Jaime Bassa or Mauricio Daza, writers such as Jorge Baradit, who for years has been denouncing in his books the inequalities that permeate the history and present of the country, “Aunt Pikachu”, the famous protester of the Dignity Square, lawyers and television panelists, journalists, professionals from different fields and social or environmental activists. If the independents were to form a single force (those on citizen lists added to those on party lists), it can be said that the independents won the elections. They make up 64% of the new chamber (88 seats), leaving only 50 seats for party militants (apart from the seats reserved for native peoples).

The collapse of the right wing is telluric. On the one hand, they did not manage to reach the third of the constituent chamber, a resource they thought they had won and which would have given them the right of veto to prevent measures not in line with the economic power. At the same time, their candidates obtained poor results in the gubernatorial elections, a position that was being voted for the first time in Chile. The conservative coalition only won in two regions, and in both cases it will have to face the candidate of the Constituent Unity (Socialists and Christian Democracy) in a second round.

For its part, the former Concertación -considered the second leg of the model maintained since the dictatorship- fades away and gives way to a rise of the coalition to its left: the union of the Frente Amplio and the Communist Party (“Apruebo Dignidad”) is only 100,000 votes behind the right, becoming the second political force in the country. And finally, the lists of independent citizens, formed in the heat of social protest, burst in with power. For the first time, unlike previous elections, there is a political chamber in Chile that, seat up, seat down, looks quite similar to the country, to that Chile that dominated the streets in the social outburst.

Addressing the nation at the end of the day, Piñera acknowledged the defeat: “We are not adequately tuned with the demands and yearnings of the citizens and we are being challenged by new expressions and new leaderships”. Between mentions to “dialogue” and “agreements”, already knowing that he will have to beg for them, he celebrated the success of women, expressed in a parity chamber (something that, let us remember, was obtained through marches and barricades), and sent a message of admiration “from the bottom of his heart”, to all Chilean men and women who had allowed this process, forgetting that almost all of them spent more than a year in the streets chanting Piñera conchetumadre asesino (Piñera, murderer, murderer, just like Pinochet). It does not matter. Piñera is gone. The old Chile is gone. Last night confirmed what the street already knew: Chile woke up and is ready to carve its own path. The new constitution will not be written by the same old ones, those who governed for 30 years with the constitution bequeathed to them by Pinochet. It will be the independents who will hold the key to Chile’s future.

pandemic elections

The country arrived at these elections exhausted, with half the territory in quarantine and the figures of contagions and deaths caused by Covid  had skyrocketed, the reason why the elections had been postponed for a month. The warnings about the parliamentary “kitchen” (in relation to the famous “Peace Agreement” that Piñera signed with almost all the opposition) did not give great hopes. The independents had only a few months to register, unite, confirm agreements and lists and coordinate, in the face of the already constituted party mass, which invited its own “independents”, assuring them quotas in their lists. It was not the same to compete alone than under the wing of a party.

The electoral law (with the d’Hont system, which privileges the most voted lists) seemed to assure the forces of the current government its privileged place. While the political parties shared almost 3,000 million pesos of public money for the electoral campaign (without counting the juicy donations from “friends”), the independents (all of them) had to share the quota corresponding to the party with the least votes in the last elections, which translated into a few thousand pesos per head. The same inequality was present in the minutes attributed to each organization in the electoral television slots. As a result, some candidates had only a couple of seconds to send their message on television.

Despite the importance of these elections, the most important in three decades, the media have been more focused in recent months on the November presidential race. The right wing has appeared more united than ever: for these elections they were already running in a single coalition, unlike the dispersed opposition. The battle for the front-runners of the center-left has been the main topic of the newspapers. While the Frente Amplio and the PC sought a broad primary of the whole progressive pole, the Socialists and the DC preferred to maintain the Concertación alliance to leave out the Communists. We will have to see if after tonight’s result they still think the same.

Once the TV and the big newspapers were lost, the main space for deliberation about the constituent assembly took place in small independent events, many of them in neighborhoods, fairs, squares (as long as restrictions allowed it), and in many online conversations or discussions in social networks. Although the message that dominated the networks was to, no matter what, vote for any option against the right.

On the other hand, anyone would have thought that the resounding victory of the “I approve” in the October plebiscite would lead Piñera’s executive to make some conciliatory gesture, but this was not the case. Instead, it continued to lose itself in unpopular proposals that could do little or nothing for the population at such a critical moment as the present. Insufficient bonuses full of requirements that most of them could not collect, a frontal and suicidal opposition to the proposals for withdrawals of 10% of the money from the PFAs, which Chileans demanded with furious pots and pans before each vote on the matter. The coup de grâce was given by the same Constitutional Court to which the right wing has resorted in the last decades every time a measure did not satisfy it. In this case, the court ruled against the Government, leaving Piñera weaker than ever, and forced him to make a pact with the opposition.

This did not prevent the conservatives from filling their lists for the constituent assembly with active politicians, including former ministers, something totally opposed to the victory of the “Constitutional Convention” option of the plebiscite, which called only for independents. And not only old or current politicians, but also a cohort of sons, brothers and nephews to be placed in the new chamber.

Nor was state violence reduced one iota in the protests, which, although weakened, was still going on. The Carabineros leadership has recently exhausted all resources to remove the demonstrators from the center of Santiago: more armored police cars, military tanks, massive deployments of uniformed officers, unmuzzled dogs, horses, drones, groups of intra-march infiltrators, until culminating with the construction of a wall around the square, first, and directly with the removal of the statue of General Baquedano afterwards, so that the demonstrators no longer had anything left to “conquer”.

At the same time, on the same day that several agents were sentenced for the murder of Camilo Catrillanca, the Mapuche community member shot in the back in Araucanía in 2018, the Investigative Police carried out the largest anti-drug operation in Chile’s democratic history. Nearly 800 officers were mobilized to the Araucanía. There were helicopter overflights, random raids, shootouts. The haul? Just over 1,200 marijuana plants. But the photo of the day would take place in Ercilla, the town of Mayor Catrillanca himself, where his seven-year-old daughter would end up body down under the knee of a member of the police. “Coincidence” for the authorities, “revenge” for the judicial setback in the eyes of others.

The general climate seemed to be one of discouragement, of defeat foretold. Everything seemed at times lost for the citizens’ movement that took to the streets in October, given the evidence that the Government was not only unwilling to give in, but was even maintaining or increasing its aggressive and violent response.

However, as the date approached, the calls to vote increased. Among the cell phones, the cast of faults that had provoked the social outbreak, the videos of the protests, of the songs, of the repression, the impulse of artists, like Fabiola Campillai, asking for people to vote “so that the struggle of our young people would not be in vain”, were circulating again. That breathless struggle that the people had palyed out in the streets had to be translated into something, it could not stay like that, “the usual ones” could not win. And in view of the result, it is evident that the call was echoed.

the popular eruption

Unlike other elections, these took place over two days, with the aim of reducing the crowds. There was not much turnout on Saturday: barely 20% showed up at the polls. The first alarm bells rang: the districts in the wealthy northeastern part of Santiago were voting much more than the popular districts.

Some took this situation for granted: it was known that the military would guard the ballot boxes on Saturday night, which triggered distrust in the process. But even on the morning of the second day, the polling stations seemed almost empty in the early hours. Although the possibility of making public transportation free had been debated in Congress, the measure had not come to fruition due to resistance from conservatives. Many denounced on the networks the shortage of transportation: there were few buses circulating, which made it difficult for voters to reach their corresponding polling places. There was also confusion and difficulties with the ballots of the candidates of native peoples.

But everything changed after midday, when the polling stations began to fill up. In fact, the crowds continued at 6pm, when the polling stations were supposed to close. The turnout ended up reaching 41%. Quite low in general terms, although similar to the electoral trend in Chile. However, it was 10 % less than in the October plebiscite. But it is worth mentioning one fact. In the plebiscite, the “Reject” option to the new constitution obtained 1.5 million voters, while, now, the right-wing coalition gathered only 1.2 million. The bulk of the 10% who abstained belonged to the “I approve” pole. With these data, if they had voted, their victory could have been even more resounding.

At 11:00 p.m., when the count was no longer in doubt, the Victoria Square in Valparaíso was filled with demonstrators. Jorge Sharp, the progressive mayor who in this case was running independently after his break with the Frente Amplio, and Rodrigo Mundaca, of the Modatima formation (Movimiento de Defensa por el Acceso al Agua, la Tierra y la Protección del Medio Ambiente) won in the capital and the region without the need to go to a second round, turning Valparaíso into a bastion of the national left. One slogan in particular resounded strongly, the same one that has been repeated in the marches of the last months: “Free, free, the prisoners for fighting”, in reference to the around 600 young people who are still in prison, in jails or under house arrest, punished for having come out to protest in the front line of the demonstrations, and who in many cases have suffered set-ups, preventive detention for more than a year or repetition of trials when the result favors the accused.

In the rest of the nation, the right wing only won in two regions, Arica and Los Ríos, and in both cases had to submit to a second round against the Concertación candidate. In the Metropolitan Region of Santiago, the right wing did not even get that far: the second round will measure the Christian Democrat candidate for governor against the candidate of the Frente Amplio, leaving out the candidate of Chile Vamos. In central Santiago, the new mayor will be Irací Hassler, the Communist Party candidate. The feminist current that has shocked the country even reaches the Mapuche nation. Among the candidates running for the seats of the native peoples, the victory was won by women, leaving the candidates supported by the Araucanian bourgeoisie in second place.

Another of the main “surprises” (for those who were not paying attention) is represented by “La Lista del Pueblo”, a citizen grouping launched just a few months ago by demonstrators of the Plaza de la Dignidad and members of territorial assemblies, which managed to gather the necessary signatures to register as constituents in almost all the regions of the country, attracting the young vote with a popular, fresh and contesting campaign that sought to demarcate itself from the parties and become a textual translation of the claims expressed in the streets. This proposal, which united professionals and activists from all regions, has found a devastating citizen response, becoming, in number of votes, the third force in the country. With almost one million votes, they even surpassed the Concertación, which is relegated to the fourth force and in free fall for the future.

Of course, this is a major earthquake at all levels of power in Chile. The desire to build a new country, more attentive to its social base, to the losers of the neoliberal system, those indebted by the banks and beaten by the elite, is consecrated. Nothing is won yet, however. Chile will live in the coming months with two legislative chambers: one drafting the new country, and the other, the defeated one, still legislating on the basis of the old constitution. A country that is beginning and another that refuses to die. Polarization has only just begun. Chile will live in the coming months a situation with two legislative chambers: one drafting the new country, and the other, the defeated one, still legislating on the basis of the old constitution. A country that is beginning and another that refuses to die. Polarization has only just begun.

Marcela Cubillos, former Minister of Education of Piñera, one of the main supporters of the “Rechazo”, and the most voted candidate of the right wing in these elections, gave this morning the first clue. She criticized her own sector for “buying the ideas of the left”, and pointed out: “This is not a constituent convention, so to speak, autonomous or sovereign, but regulated, with an established framework”.

The revulsion comes also at a key moment for the whole region. It is quite likely that these results will make many sectors beyond the Andes nervous. The AFP model, as well as the whole neoliberal mold, started in Chile before spreading to the rest of the continent. Right now, in Peru, a popular candidate from rural sectors is on the verge of defeating Fujimorism with a promise of referendum and constituent assembly. Colombia is experiencing a wave of mobilizations very similar to the one that began in Chile in 2019, and could see in the trans-Andean country a possible way out to apply to its own social crisis.

The road to get here has been exhausting, difficult and painful. It has involved great sacrifices, including almost forty human lives and more than 400 children’s eyes damaged forever, thousands of detainees and traumas for an entire generation. This victory is no small thing: the opportunity to develop policies that advocate for memory, reparations, human rights and social justice is here, at hand. The progressive forces, together with the new independent citizen forces, completely swept away the “Rejectionist” forces. They now hold a good part of regional, municipal and constitutional power. There are only months left before the presidential elections, where, according to the polls, the right is not likely to win either, which could also give this wave of change, eventually, the legislative and executive power.

The citizens have given all they could give and have taken a fundamental step towards their demands. A new constitution will be drafted, with independents, with 17 seats for native peoples, with gender parity and a popular majority. Nothing has been free. Chilean society has achieved in two years what it did not achieve in three decades, thanks to a committed, creative and at times rebellious mobilization, unprecedented, even when subjected to insane levels of repression. No one can doubt their commitment. It is now up to the different forces to which they have given their votes to show themselves to be at the height of the moment and of the historical opportunity, by all means unrepeatable, to respect the epic mandate that not even a global pandemic has been able to stop, and to launch themselves, with decades of delay, to open those great avenues through which the free men and women of Chile can pass.

Source: Resumen Latinoamericano, translation Resumen – English