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Chile; now, where were we?

A couple of days after arriving in Chile, I was stuck standing in line at the VTR office in Santiago, attempting to procure a new mobile phone. To my surprise, a big screen TV on the wall was showing the ceremony at the national electoral authority where 35-year old Gabriel Boric was being duly certified as the president-elect of Chile, to be inaugurated on March 11, 2022.

Four officers of the electoral authority sat at a table in front of the president-elect, who was joined by the presidents of the Chilean senate and chamber of deputies and several other officials; all wore masks, respecting the rules of the COVID-19 pandemic response in Chile. A small string ensemble played the national anthem. The elections officer in charge read the declaration which formalized the election of Gabriel Boric, signed the document, and the solemn, concise and civil ceremony ended.

My mind leapt back to January 6, 2021, when we watched a very un-civil certification of U.S. presidential election results in Washington, DC. The comparison is too extreme to go unnoted; the contrasting pictures have stayed with me, indelibly I fear.

Many believe that Chileans took a great leap of faith when they elected the radical student protester turned politician Gabriel Boric to be their next President. But in the final runoff election on December 19, 2021, the choice voters had was between a pretty extreme conservative who retains a whitewashed affection for the Pinochet military dictatorship, and the young extremely progressive firebrand Boric. So, voters chose Boric, by a significant margin.

But before we look too deeply into that decision, let’s go back to where I left off with the last posting on this blog: the October 2020 plebiscite that created a constituent convention to rewrite Chile’s constitution. That decision, following the social upheaval of October 2019 (referred to as the “estallido social“), appears even more clearly now to have kept Chilean society from a serious institutional breakdown.

What I described about a year ago was what seemed to be an improbable upcoming agenda of important national and local elections, plus the uncertainty of the creation of the convention to rewrite Chile’s constitution. Well, having carried out this entire array of elections, capped with the election of Boric to the presidency, Chileans have delivered a truly incredible set of accomplishments. This is especially laudable given that it was all carried out during the pandemic.

To summarize these accomplishments, in May 2021 Chileans went to the polls and chose 155 citizens to make up the constitutional convention, evenly divided between men and women. Seats were reserved for representatives of several different indigenous peoples; in fact the first president of the convention was a Mapuche woman with a Doctorate in literature. At the same time, elections were held for mayors of 345 municipalities and, for the first time ever, for 16 regional governors (an increasingly important position previously appointed by the President of the country). Six months later, in November 2021, voters again went to the polls to select all 155 members of the Chamber of Deputies, 27 of the 50-seat Senate, and the president. A second round runoff election for the president was required because no candidate received the required number of votes to win in the first round. Hence, the showdown on December 19, 2021, between Jose Antonio Kast and Gabriel Boric.

At the end of this year long election fest, political forces seemed to be aligning like this: The constitutional convention represents a youngish, heavily independent, change-minded group of individuals, many of whom are educated to some level in law, but only one trained economist. The traditional political parties of the center left and center right, who have governed Chile since the return to democratic government after the Pinochet regime are not strongly represented in this convention. However, the election of governors, mayors, and the national legislature followed more traditional lines, with representatives of the political parties fairly balanced. And finally, the progressive president elect Boric, who meandered more to the center in the runoff election, did win the presidency clearly and can claim a substantial mandate for the changes his program proposed.

Meanwhile, the sitting president, Sebastian Piñera, having lost most of his support and credibility as a result of the social upheaval and his clumsy response to it, did manage to guide Chile through the pandemic with early arrival of vaccines, an effective vaccination campaign, broad coverage of economic relief and health care, and fairly strict control of movement throughout and into the country. Of course there was significant opposition to most everything he tried to do, in the streets, from opposition parties, and even at times members of his own coalition in congress opting to go against his proposals and programs. Piñera will depart in March a very diminished leader; maybe history will judge better his leadership throughout this tumultuous time, but for now, he departs quietly and without glory.

The confluence of political processes at this juncture in Chile is mind boggling (remember how my good Chilean friend always says “It’s complicated, Gringo!?). Well yes, it is complicated. The newly elected regional governors are chomping at the bit to begin managing programs in their regions, even as the leftover representatives appointed by the sitting president remain in place awaiting some sort of redefinition of their roles vis a vis the newly elected governors. Sorting out the distinct roles and the resources the new governors will have at their disposal is ongoing, but will fall to the new administration to resolve. If there is any real movement towards decentralization of decision making power these newly elected governors will be key.

The legislative branch (Chamber of Deputies and Congress), has been muddling through the last few months, pushing the envelope on their constitutional powers in attempts to force the outgoing conservative president to support tax and pension legislation it is not inclined to support.

Both houses of the new Congress are essentially balanced between the left and right parties, with the party leaderships in control of their members (a situation very distinct from the dynamic of the constitutional convention). This Congress begins its term in March 2022, along with the newly elected president, Gabriel Boric, who ran on a program solidly on the left of the political spectrum in today’s Chile. The nature of this legislature will make it difficult for President Boric to push his very progressive program through. The opinions of most analysts after Boric’s election is that he will be forced to form coalitions with center left and even center right legislators to enact much of his program, something which will surely cause him problems with his firmest base that includes the Communist party and parties in the far left Frente Amplio coalition.

The constitutional convention is scheduled to have the proposal for a new constitution in June of this year. Seven commissions have been working on the major subjects of political system, constitutional principles, structure of the State, fundamental rights, environment and economic model, system of justice and autonomous agencies, and knowledge, culture, and science. At this point, these commissions have completed their consultation and analysis phases, and must now produce the specific sections to be proposed for inclusion in the final draft. Proposals from each commission will be put forward if they receive a simple majority vote in the commission. Subsequently, the sections which go forward to the plenary will need a two thirds vote of the constituents (now 154; one dropped out) to qualify for inclusion in the final draft that will eventually be submitted to a national plebiscite.

I leave this update at this point, to get it out to you now. However, as I finalize this, The constitutional convention is moving forward, and we can begin to see what they are focusing on. As well, president elect Boric is forming his government. He has named his cabinet, and will continue this week to fill out the positions for his administration that will begin March 11.

I will follow this post quickly with more on the constitutional convention and Boric’s new team. I promise. Stay tuned.

Posted on January 25, 2022, happily from my balcony in Santiago, Chile.

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David Joslyn
David Joslyn, after a 45-year career in international development with USAID, Peace Corps, The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and private sector consulting firms, divides his time between his homes in Virginia and Chile. Since 2010, David has been writing about Chile and Chileans, often based upon his experience with the Peace Corps in Chile and his many travels throughout the country with family and friends.
David Joslyn

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