LONDON – When candidates from the far right and the far left advance to the second round of a presidential election, one is tempted to quote William Butler Yeats’s famous line, “things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” But to understand Chile’s current presidential contest, Vladimir Lenin, who called left-wing communism “an infantile disorder,” is a better guide.
After the massive protests of late 2019, and the election six months ago of a convention full of unconventional delegates to write a new constitution, many thought Chile had shifted left. But José Antonio Kast, who won the first round of the presidential election on November 21, is a hard rightist who downplays the torture and murders committed during General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, promises to take a hard line against criminals and drug dealers, and wages a Trumpian cultural war against feminists and LGBTQ+ communities.
What happened? The short answer is that many Chileans are frightened, and others are angry. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic squeeze contributed to such sentiments. But so did the antics of the left.
The left’s mistakes began two years ago, when leaders of progressive parties accepted the protesters’ claim that the unrest stemmed not from a 30-peso ($0.04) increase in subway fares, but from dissatisfaction with the previous 30 years – 24 of them under center-left governments. That came as news to many middle-class families whose incomes had tripled over those decades, enabling them to afford a car, buy a house with a 30-year mortgage (unheard of elsewhere in Latin America), and send their kids to university. Yes, too many Chileans are overindebted, have spotty access to health care, and face the prospect of a wretched pension. But the huge rise in living standards is undeniable.
Denying it, as much of the center left did, turned out to be not only historically inaccurate but politically suicidal. One cannot claim to have caused people’s problems and then offer to fix them. Voters understandably balked, and Senator Yasna Provoste, the center-left presidential candidate, won just 11.6% in the first round.
Provoste, a woman of indigenous ancestry raised in a small town, was a candidate of great potential at a time of rising anti-establishment sentiment. Her fifth-place finish – behind, among others, a demagogue who, facing many lawsuits back home, campaigned by Zoom from the United States – attests to the center left’s colossal political failure.
In addition, both the center left and the Frente Amplio – the far-left coalition backing Gabriel Boric, Kast’s second-round opponent on December 19 – paid a steep electoral price for failing to take a clear stance against political violence. Leftist leaders’ public condemnation of the violence that took place starting in late 2019 (including the firebombing of dozens of subway stations in Santiago) was mealy-mouthed at best. Instead of voicing support for middle-class citizens who could not get to work because there was no public transport, or whose shops had been burned down, they proposed an amnesty – backed by both Boric and Provoste – for everyone charged with violent acts during the street demonstrations.
The consequences of this misguided approach became clear in the Araucanía region of southern Chile – the country’s poorest, and home to the Mapuche people. The presidential campaign there should have been about the grievances of indigenous groups, who have faced centuries of mistreatment and discrimination. Instead, it focused on the attacks on forestry companies’ trucks and facilities by small groups of violent militants. A growing sense of insecurity delivered the region to Kast, who outpolled Boric there by almost three to one.
Voters also demanded greater economic security – and, here again, the left failed to deliver. Boric’s confusing pension plan, which some saw as a threat to nationalize the $170 billion that Chileans still hold in private retirement accounts, probably lost him votes. So did the claim by one of his lieutenants that their planned economic changes would “add instability to the country.” The center left did little better: although Provoste recruited a top-notch team of economic advisers, voters were not persuaded that hers would be a safe pair of hands for managing the economy.
Since the events of October 2019, Chile’s radical left has oozed arrogance, labeling anyone who disagreed with them hopelessly naive, a stooge of shady business interests, or both. But reality, as ever, caught the ideologues by surprise. Chileans wanted evolution, but the far left thought they wanted revolution. The center left did not know what to think. Lacking all conviction, it resorted to aping the radical gestures of the Frente Amplio.
Now that he is in the second round, it is reinvention time for Boric. He has discovered the virtues of economic growth and, just in case voters are skeptical, has surrounded himself with the type of PhD-wielding economists he used to dismiss as heartless technocrats. He has also walked back his support for the amnesty bill, claiming that he never meant to pardon violent criminals. And he was quick to distance himself from a statement by his Communist allies congratulating Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega on the latter’s recent travesty of an election victory.
It is difficult to know whether this will be enough to guarantee Boric the lead. Kast’s anti-feminist, anti-gay, and anti-trans rhetoric is as toxic as Trump’s, and his law-and-order talk is almost as crude as that of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. But he manages to deliver his most offensive lines with a beatific smile and the reassuring tone of a well-meaning (if somewhat creepy) uncle. That will help him at the ballot box.
What will not help Kast is his prison visit with Miguel Krasnoff – a Pinochet henchman sentenced to serve 650 years for crimes against humanity – after which Kast declared he “does not believe all the things that are said” about Krasnoff. If Pinochet were alive, Kast added, “he would vote for me.” Should Boric prevail in the second round, it will be because large numbers of mainstream voters find Kast’s extremism impossible to swallow.
But, as the US, Brazil, India, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, and other countries have learned the hard way, recorking the genie of right-wing populism is very difficult. It helps to have a modern reformist alternative. After its recent failures, the rebuilding of Chile’s center left cannot begin a moment too soon.
This article was originally published in Project Syndicate