Chile’s Election Could Spark a New Left, Institutional Crisis

The economy, workers rights, education and Indigenous struggles will be key to Chile as it heads to an election this year.

In recent years, Chile has been known as one of Latin America’s most stable and prosperous nations, but as it heads into a November election there are numerous unresolved issues that could boil over and lead to an even lower turnout than the 2013 election, which saw Michelle Bachelet elected with some 43 percent of the vote.

As the economy continues to slow, there is underlying unrest amid protests from students and workers, as well as continuing Indigenous struggles which are likely to continue well into 2017. As a result, new left groups could emerge from the disenchantment that many have with the country’s traditional parties.

Tensions over Education

Education reform still remains a controversial issue within Chile and has seen mass student-led protests against President Michelle Bachelet’s government. Amid the country’s recent economic downturn, Bachelet scaled down a number of reforms designed to improve equality for a system that is expensive for the majority of students, where money injected into the system commonly ends up the coffers of private profit and students are left with crushing debts.

The mass student protests that have been a staple of Chilean life over the last decade are unlikely to disappear this year and with an election pressing, could even flare up more. Students and workers groups demand free and quality higher education with greater access across all sectors of society.

Faced with large class sizes, uninspiring salaries and the longest working hours in the OECD, Chilean teachers are also demanding more recognition and a change to the education system.

Working-Class Unrest

Since the brutal years under U.S. backed dictator Augusto Pinochet, Chile has been a strong advocate of neo-liberal economic policy, but for many of Chile’s poor and working class these policies have left them out in the cold literally and figuratively.

Chilean workers groups have continually demanded labor reforms, including reestablishing bargaining rights lost under the dictatorship, higher wages and more recently reforms to the country’s pension system. Many Chileans are upset at the low private pensions first brought in by Pinochet — most of which are below minimum wage — and argue that it is simply not enough for retirees to survive on.

Workers groups and students throughout 2016 came out in protest and to force changes to the system, which is dominated by private providers known as AFPs, where workers are forced to deposit a part of their wage plus administrative fees into private accounts, which supposedly go back into the country’s economy.

With a slowing of the economy, the pension funds have recently taken a hit, leaving many with tiny sums. The government has since floundered on its proposal to overhaul the system for a state-backed system. The anger has spilled over into a number protests and strikes, featuring hundreds of thousands of concerned Chileans.

For dozens of Chilean miners, 2017 was brought in 2,000 feet underground as they demanded that the government help to save their jobs by carrying through its promise to buy the bankrupt Santa Ana mine in the Bio Bio region of the country. For almost a month 73 miners have been occupying the close mine in protest after negotiations between the government and workers fell through.

But the dispute stretches back further. After the company went bankrupt and the mine closed in 2015, the Chilean government had promised to buy the mine. With the workers union saying that the government has failed to fulfill its part of the deal, strikes seem all but set to continue.

Indigenous Communities

Chile also faces years of underlying tensions with Indigenous communities, in particular with the Mapuche people from the Patagonian region of the country. Made up of over 600,000 people, the Mapuche are one the largest Indigenous populations in South America. Since their lands were colonized by the Spanish, the Mapuche has continually fought for recognition and the return of their native lands.

Faced with state and corporate occupation of their lands, government repression and the arrests of many of their leaders, the Mapuche have continually taken to protesting. Similar to angry Chilean students and workers, the Mapuche and their supporters have been met with significant crackdowns from authorities. One of the most prominent examples of the Mapuche struggle is 60-year-old Mapuche leader Francisca Linconao, whose health has begun to deteriorate as she continues a hunger strike.

Just before the new year, Bachelet affirmed the importance to constitutionally recognize Indigenous groups and allow political representation of Indigenous groups in Chile. While she seems intent on working toward a solution with Indigenous groups including the Mapuche, it will no doubt be an important issue for 2017 and beyond.

The General Election

Chile is set to go to the polls in its general election on Nov. 19, but Bachelet, who has been in power since 2014, will not be able to run again for the post, as the country’s constitution forbids it. After enjoying a high approval rate during her first presidency, Bachelet’s approval rating has since plummeted.

And if the low turnout from October’s local elections was anything to go by, Chileans would appear to be increasingly disillusioned ahead of the general elections. At the moment the race is being poised between two former presidents; Sebastian Piñera and Ricardo Lagos.

The most recent polling shows right-wing Piñera, who was in power from 2010-2014 as the favorite with 20 percent of support. Centre-right Lagos, who was president as part of the Concertation coalition made up of social democratic parties, was seen to have gained around 5 percent support after Isabel Allende, daughter of socialist President Salvador Allende who was overthrown by Pinochet in a U.S.-backed coup, dropped out of the race.

A former ally of the Concertation turned Independent candidate, Alejandro Guillier, is gaining momentum. While was polled with 15 percent support, Guillier was predicted to win in a head to head election by 5 points against Pinera. Many have put his rising success down to widespread disillusionment with establishment politics in Chile and the rise of unrest amid the country’s economic downturn.

However, there is also an emerging force on the left, headed by former student leaders Gabriel Boric and his Autonomist Movement and the Democratic Revolution group led by Giorgio Jackson. Since being elected to as national legislators, Boric and Jackson have been garnering nationwide regard as visionary and outspoken leaders on numerous social issues, and in the recent municipal elections, their parties made important gains including the Autonomists surprise win of the mayoralty in Valparaiso where Jorge Sharp edged out incumbent Jorge Castro and famed musician and reality TV star, Leopoldo ‘DJ’ Menedez.

In August of this year, the two groups came together with a number of other left movements and parties to form the “Broad Front.” While the coalition will be unlikely to contest the country’s top post, they could make major strides and build their presence in the country’s congress, making life more uncomfortable for the traditional parties.


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