What is it and what does the new Chilean left want?

Gabriela Pinilla, Hunger, Acrylic on paper, illustration for Newspaper, 40 X 50 centimeters, Bogotá 2020


The Frente Ampla and the new Chilean left are still a long way from having managed to generate consistent national majorities that can govern the country.

In 2016, a fledgling coalition shook Chilean politics with an unexpected victory in the municipality of Valparaíso. The following year, despite inauspicious electoral forecasts, the new coalition managed to consolidate itself with a surprising result in the presidential and parliamentary elections (in which it won 20 deputies and one senator).

The Frente Ampla (FA), whose young leadership had emerged in the heat of the 2011 student mobilizations, included a diversity of collectives and parties from a broad political and ideological spectrum. After its initial success, speculation abounded about its ability to continue to grow and even become a ruling force. The first two years of the FA were marked by ruptures and internal disputes that gradually eroded its image.

In the midst of these quarrels, at the end of 2019, Chile experienced a unprecedented social upheaval, which took millions of people to the streets and caused the approval of the government of Sebastián Piñera to drop sharply and produced a strong erosion of the political institutions built in the post-dictatorship transition. Many things explained this irruption, but a fundamental element was undoubtedly a merciless criticism of all parties in the political system and a denunciation of the blind spots of the democratic transition. At first it seemed that criticism of the traditional parties might translate into support for the FA's new organisations, but this did not. Those who had rejected the preceding political order were, in turn, appointed by the citizens.

The hardest blow for the new coalition came after several of its main leaders put their signatures and those of their parties in a transversal political agreement that allowed the beginning of a constituent process that would channel social demands institutionally. To achieve this agreement, concessions were made, such as accepting that the articles of the new Magna Carta be approved by two thirds of the Constitutional Convention, which would give more veto power to the conservative sectors.

Some people in the FA saw this signing as a betrayal. A series of splits significantly reduced the coalition's parliamentary presence. The last blow came when, after confirming a new alliance with the Communist Party (PC), four deputies left the organization. Various media rushed to declare the FA dead, ensuring that what was left of her would be absorbed by the identity of the PC. Among the FA's own militancy, the question began to arise as to whether its destiny would be to become the first coalition of the new political order, which was beginning to be born with the social upheaval, or the last of an order in decline.

This was the backdrop for the elections on May 15 and 16, in which the members of the Constitutional Convention, mayors and governors were elected. Several analysts predicted (based on some surveys, previous elections and projections) a smooth election, marked by the vote of the same voters as always, who had given victories to the two main blocs of Chilean politics in the last 30 years. On the one hand, the centre-left coalition, heir to the concertation of Parties for Democracy who led the transition process to end the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. On the other hand, the right-wing coalition that was originally built as a defense of the dictatorship's legacy but, over the years, has tried (with some success) to exorcise that birthmark. Analysts could not have been more wrong.

This election represented a true earthquake for national politics. At the Constitutional Convention, there was a collapse of the right-wing vote, articulated in the bloc Chile Let's go, which won about 20% of the vote (in 2017, the current right-wing president, Sebastián Piñera, won the second round of elections with 54%), and a defeat in the vote of the traditional center-left list (the list of the I approve), which includes the Socialist Party, Christian Democracy and other centre-left forces.

Perhaps the most notorious example of this crisis was that of Christian Democracy, which only managed to elect one militant from its ranks to the Constitutional Convention (the party's president). The main surprise was the hundreds of independent candidates who ended up being elected. Of the 155 members of the Convention, 103 are not politically active. Unlike the two traditional blocs, the left-wing bloc of the PC with the FA, recently launched, managed to maintain and even grow in presence, surpassing the center-left list (articulated in the bloc of the I approve) in number of constituents. However, the biggest surprise came in the municipal elections that took place at the same time.

In them, the PC, and above all the FA, managed to wrest populous and iconic municipalities from the right. From popular communes to some upper-middle-class ones, this coalition's proposal has managed to garner surprising support. In communes that included emblematic right-wing positions in city halls, such as the commune in the center of Santiago, where the Palacio de La Moneda is located, and Maipú, the second most populous commune in the Metropolitan Region, the triumph was undeniable. In these communes, Irací Hassler, 30 years old, from the PC, and Tomás Vodanovic, also 30 years old, from the FA, as well as Javiera Reyes in Lo Espejo, were elected. Added to these results are victories in Viña del Mar, Valdivia and other locations.

Several of these victories are surprising because they took place precisely in the municipal space. These elections have historically been marked by clientelistic networks and consolidated party machines, which have made it difficult for third parties to enter. Furthermore, one of the most striking things about the victories of the leftist pact is their transversality in socioeconomic terms. From popular communes dominated by the working classes, like Lo Espejo, to upper-middle-class communes, like Ñuñoa, where Emilia Ríos (32 years old, from the FA) won mayoralty, practically the entire social scale of the capital is covered, and both were in the hands of mayors from the new left coalition. Even in the commune of Las Condes, the iconic home of the country's upper classes and a stronghold of right-wing votes, an FA candidate, Isidora Alcalde, was elected to the municipal council.

The reasons for this massive participation in municipal elections are diverse. Undoubtedly, a central part lies in the political crisis unleashed since the social upheaval of 2019, which materialized in a demand for a renewal of politics, together with a deep distrust of traditional politics. But there also seems to be something about the leftist coalition's political offering that made it particularly attractive in this scenario.

The first element that successful municipal candidates have in common is territorial work and a trajectory linked to the communes for which they competed. Local activists, advisers, territorial officials in charge of legislative mandates: these are the experiences that characterized the previous years of all of them. While the media and the public debate were marked by the intrigues, ruptures and resignations of the national gossip in Parliament, these young people were “doing their work” with the neighborhood councils, neighborhood organizations, local media and different organized social expressions. in these communes. In addition, they are candidacies that have taken special care to generate participatory programs in the communities that saw them working in previous years. This explains, to a large extent, why they were able to counteract the patronage of municipal elections, dominated by the major parties, which used to act as barriers.

Another element that marks the new community leaders is their youth. In general, they are, as already mentioned, around 30 years old. Politically, it is the first time that several of them have assumed an institutional leadership role, although many of them have had experiences in the student movement. In this sense, the experience of the 2011 student mobilization was fundamental. This is relatively obvious in the case of FA, but it is repeated in the PC. The two new female mayors of the PC in the Metropolitan Region (Lo Espejo and Santiago Centro) were student leaders at the University of Chile. Thus, the current elections reflect, at the municipal level, a phenomenon already observed in Parliament. It is about the arrival of a new generation of leaders, whether in the FA or in the PC (the best known case is that of Camila Vallejo, also a former student leader at the University of Chile).

Alongside the youth, the presence of female and feminist leaders is notorious. Several of the newly elected women mayors played leading roles in the feminist tide that emerged in Chile in 2018 and managed to penetrate deeply into the public debate (the Constitutional Convention was elected with strict parity rules, which ensured the equal participation of men and women). Thus, it is not surprising that, for example, the campaign slogan of Ñuñoa mayoral candidate Emilia Ríos centered on “bring feminism to town".

Finally, a striking aspect of several of these successful applications is that they are young professionals, several of them graduated from the best universities in the country. On the one hand, these candidacies embody the emergence of the new Chilean middle class, marked by massive access to university. On the other hand, left-wing candidacies, traditionally attacked in local spaces for their alleged lack of management capacity, also allowed them to present themselves as an alternative of administrative excellence, in the face of cases of inefficiency, ineffectiveness or outright corruption of communal governments. .

Why did you vote for the coalition between FA and PC? Specifically, one of the questions that arose after the election result was about the identity of the FA which, against all odds, was far from being absorbed into the recent coalition with the CP. It seems that the voters perceived the FA's own identity, which, instead of diluting itself in the communist identity, was seen as complementary. It's a distinctly different identity than 2017, which was politically more diffuse and defined in opposition to traditional blocs. In this sense, the “new” FA has less political breadth, but greater social depth. Furthermore, the signing of the agreement that initiated the constituent process inevitably became associated with its brand. What some saw as a liability ended up consolidating an image of a more mature FA.

If the PC assumed the contesting role that the FA had in the past, it is now consolidating its critical position, of renewal from organized society, clearly positioned to the left, but anchored in a republican sense of democracy and dialogue. So much so that one of the protagonists in the signing of the political agreement that gave rise to the Constitutional Convention, deputy and former student leader Gabriel Boric, emerged as his presidential candidate in the November elections of this year.

Some of those who thought the FA was dead and gone now attribute to it a crucial role as a bridge between “the new” and “the old” in national politics. On the other hand, although this new FA seems ideologically more consistent and its main leaders seem to have matured in the heat of the crises and defeats of recent years, it is still not clear how it will face this new political cycle, now that it has consolidated its position. Although an incipient feeling of front-wide militancy, previously absent, has begun to emerge, the centrifugal tendencies and the propensity to break up the fragile party institutions that compose it are still present.

It will be a great challenge for the conglomerate to overcome these trends, in the midst of the turmoil that the new Chilean political scenario has brought. Furthermore, although the recent results reflect a better relative position in the evaluation of this coalition by the population, the FA does not escape a good part of the criticisms and denunciations directed at the parties and the political system. In this sense, an urgent question is how to secure and integrate the new forces that are being born since the irruption in the form of independent candidacies and that have been the big winners of the elections.

The FA and the new Chilean left are still a long way from having managed to generate consistent national majorities that can govern the country. In any case, it seems that the FA has gained the opportunity to be part of the new chapter of Chilean politics. He will now have to demonstrate that, in addition to territorial work and electoral mobilization, he is capable of successfully managing the new municipalities he governs. Voters have decided to give you an opportunity to show it, but will not hesitate to abandon them if you fail. Furthermore, the parliamentary and presidential elections, which will be held in a few months, will be an important thermometer of how consolidated the FA's appreciation is in popular opinion. There is no certainty about this. A conglomerate that has demonstrated firm and correct convictions can perfectly err. “Doubt must follow conviction like a shadow,” is the Albert Camus quote that Boric often paraphrases as a mantra. A good summary of the challenge faced by the renewed Chilean new left.

*Noam Titelman is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He was president of la Federación de Estudiantes de la Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

Originally published in the magazine New Society.


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