In the Chilean presidential elections last December, Gabriel Boric, the 35-year-old former student activist and social democrat, defeated the candidate of the far right, José Kast. The victory of the new Chilean president means hope, but also many challenges for Chile’s future.
A comment by Leonel Bustamante
The use of fear as a weapon of political power is something that has brought fruitful benefits to those politicians that have abused the disgust that citizens feel towards politics as a failed method to produce great changes in matters of social justice. In the case of Latin America, this fear has been based on a caricatured construction of an enemy that sometimes is located either in Cuba or in Venezuela, and whose objective obstructs any possibility of rational discussion. This fear becomes strengthened when the one who uses it reveals itself as someone “heavy-handed”.
These characters behave politically with a very well built communicational mise-en-scène, where facts as a standard of what is true or false do not have any relevance, leading to a rhetoric of mistrust, one of whose most disastrous consequences is that every person sees in their neighbour not a fellow citizen but an enemy. The experience of the last few years has shown us that these false prophets, such as Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro, have aimed to turn polarisation into a normal condition with the purpose of raising themselves as its formidable natural leaders.
The runoff election was held in Chile on 19 December 2021, where Gabriel Boric, grand-son of a Croatian immigrant whose political thinking is influenced by social democracy, was elected as the new Chilean president. The other candidate was José Kast, whose father was a member of the NSDAP, nostalgic for the Pinochet dictatorship who proposed, among other things, Chile’s withdrawal from the United Nations.
The stakes in this election were high, because the election of the far right candidate would have meant not only the consolidation of neoliberal policies that have been in place in Chile since the Pinochet era, but also a significant step backward in respect for human rights: for example, Kast has supported the pardon of a human rights violator sentenced to more than 800 years in prison. The importance of this election reached such a point that even the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, publicly supported the now elected President: “It does matter which candidate you vote for, so I will vote for Gabriel Boric.”
The fact that the European Union, for example, has expressed its intention to strengthen relations with Chile through the newly elected government is a clear sign that a breakthrough in social democratic policies from a European perspective is in sight in Chile’s near future. In countries like Germany, the access to good public education, healthcare and a decent income are not rights that lead a country into a communist dictatorship, but the basic requirements for an effective deliberative democracy.
That is why, one day after the runoff election, the Süddeutsche Zeitung pointed out that Gabriel Boric would be as radical as the new Chancellor of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, Olaf Scholz, ironising the idea that some media wanted to spread about the allegedly unbearable radicalism of the new Chilean president’s measures. It is important to emphasise this point, because the argument of the alleged radicalism of the left is often used in Latin America to block urgent social reforms.
In order to deepen the new government’s social democratic reforms, international economic relations will be crucial and should be based on a new productive and not only extractive industry. For example, green hydrogen, an environmentally friendly energy carrier that has played little role in public debate in Chile, could represent considerable economic potential for the country. On a global scale, Chile contributes little to global warming, but by structuring an energy matrix and market around green hydrogen –given the ideal natural conditions Chile has for this technology to be successful– it could become part of the solution: in fact, some countries will be forced to import large shares of hydrogen energy in the future, one of those being Germany, which has been implementing a National Hydrogen Strategy since 2020.
This is one of the priorities of the new government, a programmatic line that should play a central role in accompanying the reforms that Chile needs and that are consistent with the goals of the United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development. Economic strength can, at the same time, provide a pragmatic basis for a stronger bond with the European Union in terms of human rights: In other words, it is a bond that can contribute to the realisation of a foreign policy that shares certain common values too.
Another goal of the new government will be to give to the extreme right no reason to undermine democracy in future elections. In this regard, the conciliatory dimension of the president will be important, but it will also be crucial to make effective progress on concrete reforms in the area of social justice. Here, the challenge will be to demonstrate that guaranteeing greater rights does not mean going down the same road as Venezuela did.
In other words, it will be a matter of practicing reconciliation within a conviction. A significant portion of the 44 percent who voted for José Kast did so not out of radical fascist convictions, but out of fear of imagining a society different from the one they have had so far. Fear and disappointment are fatal political emotions for a democracy, because they undermine the foundations of trust that must be inherent in any community. A fear that can never be dispelled by those who use it as a political weapon, relativising human rights and thus human dignity.
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Leonel is Co-Lead of the Polis180 programme Peace & Conflict. He holds a Law degree from the University of Chile and a Master of Arts in Philosophy from the University of Frankfurt, where he focused on topics of Political Philosophy and Philosophy of Language. Currently he is finishing a Master of Laws at the University of Halle-Wittenberg, where he specialises in International Public Law and Philosophy of Law.