After Sunday’s presidential and parliamentary elections in Chile, former president Michelle Bachelet is one step closer to a second term in office, decisively finishing first in Chile’s presidential election. Bachelet, who obtained nearly 47% of the vote, failed to reach the absolute majority needed to win in the first round of voting and will face second-place and ruling party candidate Evelyn Matthei in a runoff on 15th December.
Since Bachelet left office in 2010, the country’s economy has continued to grow under the management of conservative businessman Sebastian Piñera, with an annual growth rate of 5.5% bolstered by high domestic investment and contained inflation. Unemployment, which has hovered around 6% throughout the past year, hit a six-year low in March.
However, demands that new wealth be distributed more fairly – Chile has the greatest economic inequality amongst OECD developed countries – have resulted in dismal approval ratings for Piñera, the lowest of any president since Chile’s return to democracy in 1988. Massive public demonstrations, in particular the student uprising of 2011, have marked Piñera’s term and fractured his right-wing Alianza por Chile coalition.
Bachelet has worked to take advantage of the new political force found in Chile’s student movement. Her core campaign promises – reforming the Pinochet-era constitution and a revamping of the education system paid for by increased corporate taxes – were crafted to directly appeal to the protesters and the 70% of Chileans who sympathise with them.
However, Bachelet is faced with a Chilean youth that has become increasingly disillusioned with institutional politics and their movement has rejected accepted forms of achieving change. Although Chile’s first female president left her first term with high approval ratings and is smoothly riding popular discontent back to the presidency, Bachelet is not guaranteed an easy term if she wins. Changes in Chilean attitudes towards politics and a dissatisfied youth movement necessitate some adept political manoeuvring by Bachelet if she wants to carry out her promises of constitutional reform and avoid the same level of mass demonstrations that characterised her predecessor’s administration.
Nueva Mayoría takes aim at Constitutional Reform
In Sunday’s parliamentary elections, Bachelet’s centre-left Nueva Mayoría coalition, a rebranding of the Concertación bloc, captured 21 seats in the senate and 67 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. The conservative Alianza por Chile saw wins from 16 new senators and 49 deputies. Nueva Mayoría now holds a 58% legislative majority in parliament and is five seats away in the Senate and ten seats away in the house of deputies from achieving the quorums necessary to make widely demanded reforms to Chile’s dictatorship-era constitution.
The constitution, designed to impede change and promote compromise, is massively unpopular and seen by some as Chile’s last roadblock in its transition to democracy. A 2012 poll by the Latin America Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) found that over 50% of respondents agreed with the idea of constitutional reform, with an additional 20% saying they strongly agreed. Only 4% of those polled openly disagreed with constitutional reform.
Although Bachelet nearly doubled the number of votes that went to rival Alianza candidate, Matthei, she faces the right’s veto power in a parliament essentially shared between the two camps. This is because Chile’s binomial electoral system, a vestige of the Pinochet dictatorship, allocates members of parliament equally to the first and second majority coalitions, known varyingly as pacts or blocs.
Due to the binomial system, Alianza typically secures around 50% of congressional seats despite receiving only 40% of votes. The result is a parliamentary landscape that makes Bachelet’s aims at deep reforms much easier said than done. Add in an increasing public disbelief – especially among the youth – in the effectiveness of politics, and it is easy to predict that it will be difficult for Bachelet to avoid the level of public demonstrations Chile has seen in recent years.
While election day results indicate that Bachelet has wide support, voter turnout in Chile’s first non-obligatory presidential election was alarmingly low, with 6.6m voters out of a potential 13m going to the polls. While some voters may have stayed home because polls predicted an easy Bachelet victory, the low number indicates that many are apathetic toward the national government as a means of structural change.
One sector of the population that shares this apathy is the large number of student activists and organisers famous for the massive student protests of 2011, which galvanised Chile’s youth and were seen as an indictment of president Sebastian Piñera’s neoliberal-modelled government, leading to a plummet in his approval rating and a number of cabinet shake ups.
Some student leaders have embraced the route of parliamentary politics, as evidenced by the election of four of the movement’s best-known leaders to positions in parliament on Sunday. Communist Party members Camila Vallejo and Karol Cariola both won seats as deputies, as did Independent student leaders Gabriel Boric and Giorgio Jackson. Vallejo gained international acclaim in 2011 when, as president of the Students Federation of the University of Chile (FECH), she spearheaded some of Chile’s largest protests since the country’s return to democracy. Vallejo became a sort of folkloric figurehead of a new wave of revolutionary sentiment and action expressed by the youth of Latin America.
However, Vallejo and her fellow leaders’ progression to parliament represents a vision not shared by the rest of the student movement, as seen in the lack of support for Chile’s dominant centre-leftist majority and for political parties in general.
The Penguins Grow Up
Sanndy Infante Reyes was just 14 years old when, in 2006, she began marching with other secondary students against what she described as the “general discontent” evoked by the Chilean educational system. The marches, which became known as the ‘Penguin Revolution’ for the way their school uniforms made marchers look like marching penguins, were the largest student demonstrations in three decades and Bachelet’s first real political crisis as president.
The principal demand of this initial student mobilisation was the repeal of the Organic Constitutional Act of Teaching (LOCE), a law signed by Pinochet a day before leaving office in 1990. The law, which Infante says allowed education “to be transformed into a luxury good,” significantly scaled back state involvement in the school system, creating sharp disparities between public and private schools.
In 2011, Sanndy took to the streets once again with thousands of her fellow university students to demand equality in education.
While Bachelet’s promise to make higher education free within six years captures student demands for quality, equal education, it might be too little too late, according to Infante, who says that Bachelet “definitely” is not an option for students.
“Student petitions from 2006, such as the demand for free education, fell on deaf ears during Bachelet’s government, and now she is promising education reform in her campaign for re-election,” says Infante, who also calls the General Teaching Law, Bachelet’s reform of LOCE, “little more than a name change.”
A Crisis of Legitimacy Amongst Chile’s Youth
Juan Pablo Luna is a political scientist at the Catholic University of Chile and has researched the student movement’s relationship to national politics. He argues that the 2011 protests articulated a “crisis of legitimacy” for the dominant economic and political models.
According to Luna, “Chile now has a syndrome that has been common in the region: a profound alienation between society and parties and a growing devaluation of elections and representative institutions.”
In 2010, a LAPOP poll found that a meagre 11% of Chile’s population claimed affiliation with a party, down 15% from when the student protests began four years earlier. Chile is unique amongst its neighbours in this trend.
“El pueblo unido avanza sin partido” has become a popular rally cry heard in recent student marches. Translated to mean “The people united advance without a party”, it reflects the heightened irrelevance toward institutional political processes.
“I don’t believe you need to be involved in a political party in order to create political change,” says Infante, who herself has turned down invitations to join parties and organisations from both the left and the right.
Sebastian Bravo, who, like Sanndy, became involved in the student movement in 2006, is another young activist and student at the Catholic University of Chile who has shunned political parties as a necessary vehicle for social change.
“A political party which completely shares my socio-political fundamentals does not exist,” Sebastian says. “However, my tendencies tend to relate to the left – and not with my country’s false left, the Concertación, but with the wider Latin American left.”
A Generation Without Fear
Bravo says his generation possesses a “different perception of reality than that of previous generations moulded by Pinochet’s dictatorship”. He also says the student movement organises “without the fear of public spaces and without the conformism of previous generations oppressed by Pinochet”.
Last week, leaders in the movement further rejected conventional tactics of political engagement when FECH elected anarchist Melissa Sepúlveda as its newest president.
Heading into Sunday’s election, the medical student and now one of the movement’s chief spokespersons announced she would not be voting, telling Chilean newspaper El Mercurio that her vote “did not matter” and that voting would be an “empty exercise.”
“I don’t vote because the Chilean institutional system today prevents a presidential or congressional position from being an agent of transformation. There is no possibility for transformation to happen via the electoral process.”
Sepúlveda also confirmed she would not have voted for Jackson or Vallejo. “I don’t believe possibilities for transformation are in Congress. I understand their political ambition, but I do not share it,” she said.
Sebastian Bravo echoed Sepúlveda’s views on voting and seeking change through the political establishment.
“A large percentage of students who have participated in the movement and now feel unrepresented by politicians, such as Bachelet, or the political model, have decided to not vote or to seek out alternatives to the institution, such as assembly-based social movements.”
Bachelet and her Nueva Mayoría must find a way to incorporate these students back into the political process if they hope to stay relevant. The first steps will be to achieve significant reforms to the constitution and make headway in Bachelet’s campaign promises of education reform. If this does not happen during the next four years, Chile’s centre-left and left face an unpredictable future without the support of the country’s youth.
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