The untold story of the Mapuche hunger strike

The other crisis currently under way in Chile.

In a year that has been calamitous, to say the least, for Chile, having survived an earthquake that registered 8.8 on the Richter scale and enduring the ongoing saga of the men trapped for over 40 days in the San José mine, Chileans were probably looking forward to something more light-hearted with the celebrations for the country's bicentennial of independence taking place this coming weekend. However, one further tragic story unfolding in the country, the hunger strike by 34 indigenous Mapuche prisoners, has failed to gain the same level of media attention.

Some might regard the voluntary actions of the strikers, now in the 64th day of their protest, as selfish or foolish compared with the plight of the miners. Yet the protest is not just related to the initial reason for their imprisonment -- their involvement in a dispute over ancestral land in the southern Chilean region of Araucanía -- but that they continue to be governed by anti-terrorism legislation.

President Sebastián Piñera's coalition government (Alianza por Chile) has had the misfortune of inheriting not only the legacy of both the Concertación's and Augusto Pinochet's troublesome relationship with the Mapuche population, but also the counterterrorism law enacted by Pinochet in 1984, which still allows Mapuche activists to be charged as terrorism suspects and tried in military courts today.

Despite inheriting this history of land and political disputes, the current government hasn't exactly warmed itself to the Mapuche, either. As the citizen media website Global Voices reported earlier this year, although the government was faced with the ominous task of coming into office just two weeks after the earthquake hit in February, it failed to respond adequately to the disaster's impact on Mapuche territory. Nor did the media provide sufficient coverage or support to help get the necessary aid to Mapuche communities, which make up about 5 per cent of the population in southern Chile and are one of the poorest and most marginalised parts of Chilean society.

The hunger strike was originally orchestrated in an attempt to draw international attention to their plight, and has sparked off a stream of solidarity protests across the world this summer. In Chile, however, it has been largely downplayed both by media outlets and by the authorities. That goes far to explain why such a long hunger strike by so many people simultaneously has not achieved a greater level of world press coverage.

The authorities have been repeatedly criticised by human rights groups in recent years for permitting police brutality and for failing to eradicate the anti-terrorist legislation. The journalist David Dudenhoefer estimates that some thousand Mapuche have been arrested over the past decade, with many going on hunger strikes and being injured by the police during protests, three of them fatally.

Despite continued pleas from around the world to protect the interests of the Mapuche, including statements by high-profile figures as José Saramago, there has been little improvement in recent years. There was a flicker of hope during President Michelle Bachelet's tenure in 2008 when Chile became a signatory of the International Labour Organisation's Convention 169 -- which requires governments to consult indigenous groups prior to passing laws -- but progress to this effect has yet to be seen.

So, it was to everyone's great surprise last Thursday when four left-wing congressmen (members of the opposition, incidentally) joined the hunger strike in an act of solidarity. That same evening, President Piñera introduced emergency measures to revise the legislation. Yet whether more effective and long-term reforms or a greater debate between the government and the Mapuche communities are on the cards still remains uncertain.

Certainly, as has happened time and again in Chile and many other Latin American countries during protests by indigenous communities, Piñera's haste to amend the legislation is being used as a bargaining tool to pacify the protesters. Many of the Mapuche are now in a critical state of health, some having lost up to 18 kilogrammes, and the government fears that the death of even one Mapuche would put a dampener on this weekend's celebrations.

With the threat of blood on its hands, Piñera's government has the opportunity to break with the tradition of reducing the Mapuche problem to a question of ancestral land. Otherwise, as Patricio Navia, a columnist for La Tercera, suggests, it could become a true "headache" for the party and threaten the stability of modern Chilean politics.

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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.