The Return of Socialism: A Spotlight on Germany, India, and Chile (Part 3)
by Gracelle Tungbaban, Lemuel Deinla, and Gabbie Santos
CHILE: Building strong momentum
Across the Pacific Ocean from the Philippines, progressive former student leader Gabriel Boric Font is at the helm of efforts to transform Chile from the shadows of the brutal Pinochet dictatorship and several decades of neoliberalism.
In March 2022, Boric became the youngest Chilean President at 36 years old, having won the December elections 56% versus 44% for the far-right candidate José Antonio Kast. Voting in Chile has been voluntary since 2012, yet these elections saw the highest turnout, with millions more voters showing up to carry Boric and the Left to victory. These historic results help pave the way for the pursuit of an ambitious social-democratic agenda, including potentially replacing Chile’s Pinochet-era constitution with a new one.
There are several factors that can help explain the victory of Boric and the Left in Chile. In this piece, we focus on momentum — the build up of energy and enthusiasm stemming from grassroots power, and the swelling of people’s democratic hopes and desires that can cause traditional politics to implode. We discuss three sources of momentum that bolstered the Chilean Left’s winning position: 1) momentum from Chile’s region, 2) momentum from Chile’s social movements and political actions, and 3) momentum from an increasingly inclusive Chilean mass base.
1) An element of snowball effect
Latin American politics tend to be tidal, although conditions shift and change as a result of each wave. The region saw neoliberalism creep over the land when right-wing presidents adopted “Washington Consensus” policies in the late-1980s. In the early-21st century, progressive governments (e.g. Uruguay’s José “Pepe” Mujica) rose to power, only to witness the pendulum swing back to conservative and even populist governments (e.g. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro). In recent years, some political commentators have observed a new pink tide, alluding to that earlier period when Latin American politics swerved leftward.
When Boric was campaigning in December, the Left had already won in Bolivia (Luis Arce), Peru (Pedro Castillo), and Argentina (Alberto Fernández). Lula, Brazil’s former president, implored in a speech, “Whoever has a friend in Chile must have the courage to tell them: we will reconquer Chile for the Chilean people by voting for Gabriel Boric as president (translated by Riofrancos and Adler, 2022).”
It is difficult to measure the snowball effect because there are many variables involved and we do not always know what best captures momentum or how to isolate its effects. As a result, observing the snowball effect might seem subjective, but perhaps subjectivity is precisely where momentum derives its power. When people bear witness to an event that was once unthinkable, and if the outcome is desirable, they can begin the struggle towards making it possible in their own contexts. Just as Chileans might have glimpsed a more favorable political future from their neighbors, Boric’s own victory in Chile may similarly contribute to building momentum elsewhere. Gustavo Petro and his coalition in Colombia, for example, are now the front-runners in their country’s presidential elections in May. And perhaps an ocean away, Filipinos too might find in Chile’s unfolding story that growing energy.
2) From protests to mass movement
A decade ago, Boric was serving as President of the University of Chile Student Federation and was a leader in the Chilean Winter protests, a student movement against neoliberal educational reforms encroaching upon the public education system. He demanded free access to high-quality education for all, which catapulted him and his contemporaries into the national consciousness.
Two years before Boric’s election, in November 2019, mass protests erupted in the Chilean capital of Santiago against inequalities in income, healthcare, education, and pensions. What began as protests over a 30-peso public transit fare hike soon became a mass movement with the slogan “30 years, not 30 pesos,” a reference to “three decades of neoliberalism that was enshrined in Chile’s constitution even as de jure democracy returned”. Francisco Dominguez, Head of the Research Group on Latin America at Middlesex University writes, “The 2019 rebellion was the first mass mobilization that sought not only to oppose, but also to get rid of neoliberalism.”
This task that the Chilean people have set out to accomplish is far from over, and Boric has been identified as the leader who can further the cause and advance the movement. Boric’s campaign benefited from the building of momentum from the bottom up. What Boric has always fought for and the principles that have guided him — from concerned citizen to student activist to the highest rank in government — are concerns of millions of everyday Chileans and of marginalized sectors. As political scientist Sidney Tarrow (1998) points out, social movements do not rise alone. They belong to a more general context of unrest and they interact with each other. The aims of the social rebellion in 2019 are intricately interwoven with those of the Chilean Winter and other similar protests. The historically high vote count for Boric was driven by discerning Chileans who concluded that the best way to secure such aims was “to defeat Kast and his brand of unalloyed Pinochetismo”.
3) All are welcome
On Election Day in December 2021, there were reports throughout the country, and particularly in Santiago, of people having to wait for two or even three hours for buses to polling centers. Some Chileans also had justified fears that the election would be rigged. But within 90 minutes after polling stations closed, the voices carried by people’s votes were heard: Gabriel Boric and his campaign of inclusion and hope ultimately defeated fear.
As with most electoral dynamics, demographic voting patterns and trends are important to consider. For Boric, the dramatic turnout of Chileans from all kinds of diverse backgrounds was key in building up the momentum that would eventually lead to victory. Boric was supported in particular by the youth — Chilean students have an unusually high involvement rate in high school and college organizations, with Boric himself a former active student leader. He confidently stated throughout the campaign, “Do not be afraid of the youth changing this country.”
More importantly, Boric gained momentum by championing values of inclusion and equality that then drew in more and more people. And when people resonate with such values and are greeted with an open invitation to join the movement, they feel welcome and empowered to contribute in whatever ways they can. Chile Today observed that Boric has introduced a new form of politics in Chile: “inclusive politics with space at the table for social movements, grass roots organizations, minorities, and opposition sectors; no deals behind closed doors and instead open politics where transparency and dialogue are key aspects.”
Indeed, the inclusion drove an enormous social mobilization, which Pierina Ferretti captures:
“The most impressive — and decisive — campaign in the weeks leading up to the runoff election was led by diverse autonomous and independent groups: from artists to animal activists, LGBTIQ+ collectives to progressive Christians, neighborhood associations, cultural centers, football fans, and an endless list of groups that organized their own campaigns in support of Boric. Bicycle rallies, concerts, poetry recitals, leafleting and door-to-door canvassing could be seen all over the country, frequently outpacing the official candidate’s own campaign.”
The result was nothing short of historic. Not only is Boric the youngest President of Chile, but he has also carried the same spirit of inclusion from the campaign trail right into the halls of government. “[Boric] is now heading a feminist, environmentalist government that’s going to try to bring about historic social change,” according to Al Jazeera’s Latin America editor Lucia Newman. To cap it off, present at Boric’s presidential inauguration were representatives from each indigenous group — the first time this has ever happened in the country’s history.
To conclude, Boric’s victory was in many ways energized by momentum from the winds of change passing through Chile’s region, the momentum from a militant and persistent social movement fighting for the Chilean masses, and the momentum from activating a very broad segment of Chileans who have collectively organized to knock down the barriers that have kept progressives from national political power for almost a century.
The challenging work has only just begun, an electoral victory is only just the start. But if the location of Boric’s residence during his presidency is any indication — between the streets of Freedom and Hope — it may well be a time for change, perhaps not only for Chileans who wish to break from the shadows of their past, but also for those of us in the Philippines who bear witness to what’s possible when we build momentum from grassroots power.
Conclusion to the Series
Looking through these social and political developments in the three featured countries, this begs the question, “Can this happen in the Philippines as well?”. Through the experiences of Germany, India, and Chile, we have observed that listening to the struggles of the masses and fighting alongside them, we can bring forth the empowerment of the people. Through organizing and consolidating democratic forces, we, the people, can reverse the tide of oppressive rule. The burgeoning youth vote and the increasing influence of Leftist ideals will be the foundation on which our new movement is built upon.
As election day draws near, it is imperative that we vote for more inclusive politics. We should also keep in mind that as important as the electoral victories of the three political parties featured, they are not the full expression of socialism as put forward by Marx, Lenin, and Mao. Each of these countries’ winning candidates have their own flaws and weaknesses, with some perhaps revealing themselves more in the years to come. The same goes for our candidates, they are not heroes to be revered or glorified, and certainly the movement towards a “socialist” resurgence does not end with them. However, it does signify a beginning — a beacon of hope. On May 9, we should vote with conviction that our country must join the world shift towards a more just and equitable world. But beyond May 9, we will continue the struggle. The power resides with the people.
To be continued.