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22 December 2021

Chile’s new leftist president could transform the country

Gabriel Boric has won a mandate to change Chile. The only question is how he will do it.

By Megan Gibson

In what was hailed as Chile’s battle between two extremes, Gabriel Boric came out on top. On 19 December, the 35-year-old left-wing former student activist made history by becoming the nation’s youngest president, following a second round of voting. In his victory, he comfortably defeated the ultra-conservative candidate José Antonio Kast, and heralded a new era for the country.

Apart from his age, Boric’s win marks another milestone for Chile: he is the first politician from outside the narrow free-market centre-left-to-centre-right mainstream to win power since the country emerged from the shackles of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship and (re)democratised in 1990.

Yet recent years have brought much political turbulence to Chile. Protests and riots over poor living standards and inequality swept the nation in late 2019 and early 2020. Sparked by a price increase on Santiago’s metro system, the anti-government demonstrations spread to other cities and were followed by rampant looting, vandalism and a state of emergency being declared.

Both the unrest and the surge of support for political outsiders Boric and Kast in this year’s campaign suggested that the majority of Chileans were fed up with the status quo under Sebastián Piñera, the centre-right president who was first in power from 2010 until 2014 and again since 2018. Kast, who won the first round of voting in November and often drew comparisons to Donald Trump or Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, ran on a platform that vilified immigrants, pledged to crack down on crime and romanticised the Pinochet regime.

By contrast, Boric – tattooed, bearded, the candidate of the left-wing coalition Apruebo Dignidad, made up of the Equality Party, the Broad Front and the Communist Party, among others – campaigned on social justice. He proposed raising taxes for the rich, increasing public spending and implementing stronger protections for women and indigenous groups. As a result – and in contrast to 55-year-old Kast – he was routinely cast as an inexperienced radical who posed a threat to the country’s economy and democracy.

Born in the southern city of Punta Arenas in 1986, Boric studied law at the University of Chile in Santiago. He rose to public prominence when, in 2011, he became the face of a leftist protest movement that pushed to transform the country’s privatised education system. The protest led to widespread reforms and Boric went on to pursue a career in politics. He successfully ran in parliamentary elections in 2013 and was re-elected four years later. When the protests over living standards broke out in 2019, Boric was not only a staunch supporter of the demonstrators, he also backed the push to redraft the country’s Pinochet-era constitution, a campaign that was prompted – and won – by the unrest.

A 155-member Constitutional Convention, elected by Chileans in May this year, is now working on a new draft. The final text will be put to a referendum in 2022. While many on the left have hailed the opportunity to enshrine human rights and social democratic values in the constitution, opponents have warned that a Boric-backed version could decimate the country’s economic competitiveness.

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Yet much of the mud-slinging and fevered rhetoric from opponents has obscured who Boric is, or more aptly, who he is not – that is, a communist in any reality-based definition of the word. He campaigned on regulation, rather than nationalisation. He’s been vocally opposed to the regimes in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. He has, particularly in recent weeks, emphasised the need for gradual change, rather than revolutionary upheaval.

Some have worried that his more measured statements have been a pragmatic attempt to woo the centre, rather than a signal of ideology or governing intention. Just days before the election, Boric also pledged to bury the country’s “neoliberal” past.

Though that statement might have unsettled some of the corporate elite, Chileans delivered Boric a definitive mandate for change: he won 56 per cent of the vote with turnout at its highest level since Chile did away with mandatory voting in 2012.

Still, as president-elect, Boric now faces the daunting task of uniting a polarised country when he takes office on 11 March, and he will also need to work with a politically divided congress. But his victory speech suggested he’s looking to build bridges. Speaking to a crowd gathered on 19 December in Santiago, he said: “I am going to be the president of all Chileans – whether you voted for me or not.”

But after years where many Chileans have felt neglected by those in power, it’s that last pledge that could prove the most transformative – if Boric can honour it.

[See also: The Cuban crackdown proves protests are working]

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