25th Jun, 2021
“A crisis occurs, sometimes lasting for decades. This exceptional duration means that incurable structural contradictions have revealed themselves (reached maturity), and that, despite this, the political forces which are struggling to conserve and defend the existing structure itself are making every effort to cure them, within certain limits, and to overcome them. These incessant and persistent efforts (since no social formation will ever admit that it has been superseded) form the terrain of the ‘conjunctural’, and it is upon this terrain that the forces of opposition organise. These forces seek to demonstrate that the necessary and sufficient conditions already exist to make possible, and hence imperative, the accomplishment of certain historical tasks.”
Antonio Gramsci, ‘Analysis of Situations. Relations of Force’ (1933-34)
The ‘mega-election’ held on 15-16 May was one of the most seminal electoral events in Chile since the plebiscite of 1988, in which the Chilean people set the stage for the return to democracy in 1990 after 17 years under Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship.2
In general terms, the electoral results primarily meant a resounding defeat of the right-wing parties currently in office as a result of their performance in the context of a crisis of hegemony exacerbated by the pandemic situation. It also represents a drubbing for the centre-left, especially its centrist parties. At the same time, the election saw a significant advance for left-wing and independent candidates, with many of the latter coming from social movements and local organisations.
If the political event of October 2019 showed the radical rupture between the working classes and both the right-wing government of Sebastián Piñera and the political and economic establishment, the ‘mega election’ of May 2021 appears to confirm the complete undoing of Chile’s political party system inherited from the end of the dictatorship period in the late 1980s.
In view of this context, the article seeks to examine the specificity of the ‘mega-electoral juncture’, tracing both the changes produced by the ongoing crisis of hegemony and the behaviour of political and social forces that compete for dominant positions of power in the state.
More specifically, these notes will focus firstly on the ‘relations of force’ deployed by political actors in Chile since the ‘October explosion’ in 2019 onwards.3 In light of this chronological account, I will then analyse the electoral results of the elections of 15-16 May, especially the results of the Constitutional Convention election. Finally, I will outline some possible political scenarios for the Chilean crisis in the next few months.
Given that politics is always a contingent and dynamic matter, especially when a period of ‘organic crisis’ emerges, it is important for the purposes of this article to look back on the sequence of political and social events triggered in Chile from the ‘October explosion’ 2019 to the ‘mega-election’ of May 2021.
In general terms, this turbulent period can be punctuated in terms of the following six critical junctures. First, the event of October 2019 and the beginning of the exercise of the state’s emergency powers. Second, the agreement of the main political parties in November 2019 to hold a plebiscite on a new constitution to replace the one instituted on 11 September 1980. Third, the arrival of the pandemic in March 2020 and its ensuing impact on both the health of the population and the economy. Fourth, the overwhelming victory of the ‘Approve’ option in the plebiscite on 25 October 2020. Fifth, the rupture between the right-wing government and Congress as a consequence of legislative disputes around the pension system. Sixth, the complete implosion of Chile’s party system, as demonstrated by the ‘mega-election’ of May 2021, especially if we consider the results of the elections for the Constitutional Convention. Both the electoral defeat of the right-wing parties and the electoral advance of left and independent forces are further expressions of the crisis.
Of course, these processes are not causal in any simple sense. On the contrary, they are plagued by multiple and unexpected contingencies – a sort of ‘interregnum’, in which ‘morbid phenomena of the most varied kind come to pass’. These crucial aspects of the Chilean political context will be discussed in greater detail in what follows.
From the October explosion of 2019 to the mega-election of May 2021
In early October 2019, the Chilean right-wing government of Sebastián Piñera increased metro fares in the capital city, Santiago. Within hours of the government announcing the measures, high school students launched a campaign against the fare rise, calling on users to jump the barriers of metro stations. As in other contemporary Chilean historical contexts, the role played by the student movement and the government’s response were decisive aspects in shaping the crisis.
On 18 October, Piñera’s government invoked the state security law to quell the protests against the fare hike, which rapidly grew in terms of both the number of students involved and popular support. Simultaneously, the government confirmed that the new public transport prices would be maintained. Within hours, social unrest spread throughout Santiago, giving rise to political violence, lootings and riots. Even the metro network, one of the most representative symbols of Chilean modernisation, suffered extensive damage. The overwhelming majority of stations were affected by arson and vandalisation.4
The police response and the exercise of the state’s emergency powers to guarantee public order under the dictatorial constitution of 1980 were deployed against the masses. Chile’s president declared a state of emergency in Santiago and other regions of the country for the first time since the dictatorship (1973-1990). As a result, the army returned to the streets for the first time in three decades. Despite this, social unrest broke out everywhere in the country.
Certainly, no one could imagine that the most elementary political decision taken by a committee of experts on the prices of public transport would become the main issue leading to the emergence of the Estallido de Octubre [‘October explosion’], that is to say, Chile’s most remarkable political event in almost five decades.
Chile had been widely celebrated by the international economic establishment as a model of successful neoliberal modernisation accompanied by a stable democratic system.5 This myth was even peddled by Piñera just a few days before the October uprising, when he stated that Chile was an “oasis of stability” compared to its neighbouring Latin American countries.6 The emergence and consequences of the ‘October explosion’ not only discredited these optimistic interpretations but also revealed the magnitude of the crisis.
In the initial aftermath of the 'October explosion', there were not only massive protests throughout the country against Piñera’s government, but also multiple outbreaks of street fighting, numerous cultural and artistic responses, and police and military repression, with more than a dozen dead and hundreds of people suffering eye trauma from projectiles shot by the security forces.7 There was also a resurgence of historic demands that had grown over the course of the past decade, especially since the uprising of 2011 led by the university student movement. One of them, the demand for a new Constitution, had an early impact on public opinion.
By that point, Piñera and his government had lost the legitimacy to find an institutional solution. Therefore, on 15 November, the bulk of the political forces in Congress was left to find a consensus on the main official proposal to try to bring to a close the mass mobilisations and overcome the crisis triggered almost a month before.
The arrangement, titled ‘Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution’, proposed a plebiscite for April 2020 to decide whether the Constitution created in 1980 under the military dictatorship should be maintained (‘Reject’) or, on the contrary, be replaced by a new one (‘Approve’). Among the most important points of the agreement were the provisions regarding a second ballot in the plebiscite to define what type of body should draw up the new constitution and the requirement that the constitutional rules must be approved by two-thirds of incumbent members.
The latter was the most problematic issue in the negotiations because right-wing forces could block any substantial transformation if they won only a third of the seats in the Convention. This caused disagreements on strategy among the left-wing parties with representation in Congress. For instance, the Communist Party decided not to participate in the negotiations and the Frente Amplio, a new left-wing coalition created in 2017 from the uprising of 2011,8 split internally.
The agreement represented an advance for transformative and progressive forces, one which would be confirmed in the subsequent elections. However, it did not bring about the end of the popular movements.
A little over a month before the plebiscite (originally set for 26 April), the pandemic arrived in Chile. At that moment, the constitutional process had been recognised by the vast majority of political and social forces as the main institutional mechanism to try to resolve, or at least appease, the underlying crisis of hegemony already revealed in Chile by the political event of October 2019, even for those political parties who had initially rejected the ‘Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution’.
In the course of the legislative dispute, three remarkable demands from the feminist movement, indigenous groups and independent sectors were integrated into the constitutional electoral proceedings: gender parity between men and women, reserved seats for the indigenous peoples, and fewer barriers to the participation of independents. This guaranteed that the constitution would be written by an equal number of men and women (with a minimum ratio of 45%-55%), would include a significant participation of the indigenous peoples (17 out of 155 seats), and would involve more independent candidates not affiliated to any political party. As we will see later, these political reforms would be decisive for understanding the composition of the Constitutional Convention after the 15-16 May election.
Despite these favourable amendments, the right-wing government was able to push through authoritarian measures. A few weeks after the arrival of the pandemic, Piñera proceeded to implement the second form of the state of exception (‘catastrophe’), which remains in force at the time of writing. With both a constant strict lockdown and a permanent curfew, the masses were pressured to leave the streets.9
At the same time, an important segment of the population, those who work in informal jobs, were forced to continue working despite the spread of the virus because they needed to provide for their families. Consistent with the logic of a neoliberal ‘subsidiary state’10 and the ideology of a right-wing government, Piñera injected public funding focusing on the lower classes and rejected the introduction of a universal basic income equivalent to the cost of living in Chile.11
Between March and October 2020, the government was able to resist and manage the first wave of the pandemic (with a peak in June) but suffered internal political turbulence as a result. Proof of this was the fourth and fifth change of Piñera's cabinet in less than two months (June-July).
As the plebiscite of October approached, it was relatively clear that the ‘Approve’ option would obtain a comfortable victory. This led to the fragmentation of the right, in which some parties and leaders tactically opted to change sides and advocated approval of a new constitution. By contrast, the broad spectrum of opposition forces, from the traditional centre-left parties to left-wing organisations and social movements, all lined up behind the banner of ‘Approve’.
On 25 October 2019, the ‘Approve’ option received an overwhelming majority with 78% of the votes. The preference for the Constitutional Convention (‘the second ballot’) received a similar percentage (79%), confirming that the new constitution would be written by a specially established body.12
Thus, transformative political forces won a resounding electoral victory, confirming that the yearnings for change that had inspired the ‘October explosion’ could translate into electoral breakthroughs. The Constitution of 1980 had been defeated at the polls and a new one would be drafted by the Constitutional Convention. But what the distribution of power within this constitutional body would be still needed to be confirmed.
Beyond the electoral battlefield, the progress of certain pieces of legislation through Congress worsened the crisis of hegemony and governance in Chile, especially in the twelve months following April 2020.
The main issue that exacerbated the political conflict in Congress related to the pension system based on individual capitalization. The so-called Administradoras de Fondos de Pensiones (AFP) are a core structural element of the Chilean financial system designed and implemented during the dictatorship regime in 1980 along with other neoliberal reforms.
Since 2016, the Chilean pension system has been widely criticized by citizens who have demanded both ‘the end of the AFP system’ and ‘decent pensions’.13 Naturally, after the 'October explosion' of 2019 and the arrival of Covid-19, public discontent with the pension system has increased. The AFP system is broken in terms of social legitimacy.
With a right-wing government that has consistently defended the application of austerity policies and the impoverishment of the lower and middle classes, political resistance was inevitable. This came in the form of a proposal by deputies to allow the population to withdraw 10% from their pension savings. From a political perspective, this measure has effectively been the worst and most desperate policy since the start of the pandemic given the impact on the future of pensions.14
Sebastián Piñera and his government opposed the withdrawals in their three legislative procedures. The first (June 2020), second (December 2020) and third (May 2021) withdrawals of 10% were thus approved and enabled by Congress. Most of the deputies that supported the government opposed the President’s strategy and voted in favour of the withdrawals. In Chile’s extreme presidential system, the government had never lost an absolute majority in Congress since the return to democracy in 1990.
The last hope harboured by Piñera and his government to try to regain popularity and reverse what could be a historic defeat for the right in the mega-election was the rapid and efficient vaccination process against the Covid-19 pandemic. This hope was strengthened when Chile became the world leader in terms of Covid-19 vaccination rates in February 2021.15 However, the government’s wishful thinking was not borne out in reality. Chile proved that a high vaccination rate does not in fact guarantee an immediate decrease in the infection rate and deaths associated with Covid-19.16 The arrival of the second wave of the pandemic in Chile subsequently meant that the ‘mega-election’ was postponed from 24-25 April to 15-16 May.
The mega-election of May: collapse of the party system and electoral victory of the left-wing and independent forces
As part of a crowded timetable of electoral events between 2020 and 2022, the ‘mega-election’ of May combined three different elections on the same date: those for mayors and councillors, governors, and delegates to the Constitutional Convention.
Before election day, there was a clear consensus that the latter vote would dominate the three-way electoral confrontation because it would define the relative weight that traditional and newer political forces will have within the Constitutional Convention that will begin to draft a new constitution in late June 2021.
The decisive electoral battle to participate in the Constitutional Convention had overshadowed the analysis of the other two electoral contests that took place at the municipal and regional levels. The reason for this was that the Convention election represented the later stage of the constitutional process originally triggered by the social uprising that emerged in October 2019. However, once the results were known, it was clear that the 'mega-election' as a whole demonstrated a complete collapse of Chile’s political party system inherited from the end of the dictatorship period in the late 1980s.
As mentioned in my introduction, the electoral results of 15-16 May meant a resounding defeat of the right-wing forces currently in office as a result of their performance in the context of a crisis of hegemony, which was exacerbated by the pandemic situation. The elections also saw a severe drubbing for the centre-left, especially of its centrist parties, but at the same time a significant advance for left-wing and independent candidates, with many of the latter coming from social movements and local organisations.
Although right-wing political parties recognised before the ‘mega-election’ that the complete discrediting of Sebastián Piñera would negatively impact their vote, in no case did they expect to obtain less than a third of the votes. This was a decisive aspect for the right-wing coalition Vamos por Chile, especially in the election of delegates to the Constitutional Convention. Due to the 2/3 rule established in the agreement of November 2019, the right-wing parties would have been able to block any substantial transformation if they had obtained at least a third of the seats in the Convention (52 out of 155 delegates).
However, the right-wing recorded its poorest electoral performance since the return to democracy, obtaining only 37 seats in the Constitutional Convention and only 20% of the total votes. This fell far short of the numbers required to control the discussion within the Constitutional Convention (34%) and was much closer to the percentage received by the ‘Reject’ option in the plebiscite of October 2020 (21%).
Although the election of Convention delegates is unprecedented in the country, it is possible to compare these results with the parliamentary election in November 2017 as the D'Hondt method was used in both cases (except for the 17 seats reserved for indigenous peoples in the Constitutional Convention). On that occasion, the right-wing list won 72 seats, accumulating 38% of the vote. By contrast, in the ‘mega-election’ of May 2021, this coalition lost 35 seats and 18% of the vote, respectively.
Likewise, the political parties of the traditional centre-left were also severely defeated in the ‘mega-election’, especially in the election for the Constitutional Convention, in which the Lista del Apruebo obtained 25 seats and only 14% of the votes. In the parliamentary election in 2017, the centre-left parties gained 57 seats and 34% of the vote. Compared with the May 2021 election, they lost 32 seats and 20% of the vote. Here, the most dramatic fall was represented by the Partido Demócrata Cristiano, which went from having 14 seats in the Chamber of Deputies to only 2 in the Constitutional Convention. The results for the Partido Por la Democracia (from 8 to 3) and the Partido Radical (from 8 to 1) reflect a similar trend. The only centre-left party that was able to maintain its position was the Partido Socialista, which reached 15 seats in the Constitutional Convention, losing only 4 seats in comparison with the 2017 election .
On the other hand, the left-wing coalition called Apruebo Dignidad, which unites the Partido Comunista and the Frente Amplio, consolidated its political position as the second strongest group within the Constitutional Convention and overcame the centre-left. This list obtained 28 seats and 18% of the vote. At the same time, the Partido Comunista and the Frente Amplio achieved important victories in the municipal and regional elections. The most emblematic victory for the communists was in the Santiago municipality, where the candidate Irací Hassler, a 30-year-old feminist political economist, defeated the right-wing incumbent, Felipe Alessandri. The Partido Comunista had never won this post before.
The big winners of the Constitutional Convention election were the independent candidates. This heterogeneous group gained 48 seats, in which 3 main lists led the votes: La Lista del Pueblo (27 seats and 16% of the vote), Independientes No Neutrales (11 seats and 7% of the votes) and Social Movements and other independent lists (10 seats and 14% of the votes). Although independent from the political parties, they are mostly situated on the centre-left and the radical left. At the same time, most of this group have actively participated in the street protests that have emerged in Chile during the last decade from feminist, environmental, and local political movements, among others, and particularly from the ‘October explosion’. These independent candidates succeeded by feeding anti-establishment and reformist sentiments, on the one hand, and taking advantage of the approval of the independent lists by Congress, on the other.
A further notable aspect is the victory achieved by the candidates who competed for a place in the 17 seats reserved for 10 indigenous peoples. In total, they received 5% of the votes for the Constitutional Convention. Their inclusion will facilitate a discussion of some historical demands of these peoples within the Convention such as territorial autonomy and plurinationality.
Finally, it is important to mention that the gender parity reform has made it possible to elect a gender-balanced Constitutional Convention (77 women and 78 men) for the first time.
As in other historical and political contexts in which a crisis of hegemony becomes apparent, the collapse of the party system runs in parallel with a trend towards the fragmentation of political forces vying for positions of power. Proof of this is the distribution of power that the traditional and emerging political forces have assumed in the Constitutional Convention that will begin in Chile in a matter of weeks.
Although the left-wing and independent forces dominate the Convention, no single bloc alone has the 2/3 majority to impose its ideas and political programmes. Therefore, the transformative forces must make all possible efforts to reach mutual agreements in order to create a constitution that encourages people to participate and engage in political discussion, on the one hand, and moving on from the extreme neoliberalism reproduced in Chile, on the other.
The first two challenges that will test the capacity of the transformative forces for agreement will be the elections for the posts of president and vice-president and the creation of standing rules for the functioning of the Constitutional Convention. The work of the Convention is expected to take 9-12 months. At that point, the Chilean people will be asked to ratify or reject the newly drafted constitution in a new plebiscite.
In parallel to the work of the Constitutional Convention, the political parties are already preparing for the next electoral battle for the presidency and Congress in November 2021. In fact, just three days after the ‘mega-election’, the political forces had to register their candidacies to participate in the presidential primaries that will be held on July 18. Only the right-wing and left-wing coalitions presented their candidates by the deadline, whereas the centre-left was unable to do so.
Currently, these two coalitions are best placed to win the presidency, which will be crucial in terms of obstructing or promoting the progress made by the Constitutional Convention. In fact, the left has not had a better chance of winning the presidency since the victory of Salvador Allende in 1970. Securing the presidency will depend on left-wing leaderships and the transformative forces within the Convention performing well in the coming months.
Barlett, John 2021, ‘Chile emerges as global leader in Covid inoculations with “pragmatic strategy”’. The Guardian, February 28. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/feb/28/chile-covid-inoculations-vaccines-strategy
Cristi, Renato 2017. ‘The Genealogy of Jaime Guzmán’s Subsidiary State’ in Hayek: A Collaborative Biography. Archival Insights into the Evolution of Economics. Part IX: The Divine Right of the 'Free' Market, edited by Robert Leeson. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Dardot, Pierre; Guéguen, Haud; Laval, Christian and Sauvêtre, Pierre 2021, Le choix de la guerre civil. Une autre historie du néolibéralisme. Quebec: Lux Éditeur.
Harvey, David 2005, Brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
INDH 2019, ‘Situación de los Derechos Humanos en Chile en el Contexto de la Crisis Social’, Instituto Nacional de Derechos Humanos. Available at: https://bibliotecadigital.indh.cl/handle/123456789/1701
Klein, Naomi 2007, The Shock Doctrine. The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: The Penguin Press.
McDonald, Brent; Tovar, Miguel and De La Cruz, Armando 2019. ‘“It’s Mutilation”. The Police in Chile Are Blinding Protesters’. The New York Times, November 10. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/video/world/americas/100000006795557/chile-protesters-shot-eye.html
Mander, Benedict and Statt, Michael 2021. ‘Chile’s lauded vaccine rollout fails to save it from Covid surge’. Financial Times, April 8. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/89992bc9-051a-42b5-8be0-60edad4165cb
Mayol, Alberto and Cabrera, Andrés 2017, Frente Amplio en el momento cero. Santiago: Catalonia.
Taylor, Marcus 2006, From Pinochet to the ‘Third Way’: Neoliberalism and Social Transformation in Chile. London: Pluto Press.
- 2002, ‘Success for Whom? An Historical-Materialist Critique of Neoliberalism in Chile’. Historical Materialism,10.2: 45–75.
UNHR 2019, ´Report of the Mission to Chile. 30 October – 22 November 2019’. Office the High Commissioner, United Nations Human Rights. Available at: https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/CL/Report_Chile_2019_EN.pdf
Vargas, Roberto 2019, ‘La implosión de la ciudad neoliberal’, Pléyade, Número especial / Diciembre. Available at: https://www.revistapleyade.cl/la-implosion-de-la-ciudad-neoliberal/
- 1. Director of Fundación Crea. PhD researcher in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.
- 2. The vote was held on 5 October 1988. The ‘No’ option (rejecting the proposed candidate, Augusto Pinochet) won 55 percent of the votes. The ‘Yes’ option received 44 percent.
- 3. Here I am not seeking to offer a comprehensive interpretation of the historical causes that would explain the political event of October 2019. To explore the full complexity of this entire cycle, we would need to examine the structural changes deriving from the military coup d'état against the socialist government of Salvador Allende on 11 September 1973, and the subsequent paradigmatic transition from ‘the Chilean road to socialism’ to ‘the Chilean highway to neoliberalism’. Here, it will suffice to mention that over the last decade, the Chilean context ‘has reached maturity’ in at least four key ‘structural’ and ‘superstructural’ dimensions: the neoliberal model (economic), the constitutional order (juridical), the ‘bi-coalitional’ consensus (political), and social subjectivity (ideological).
- 4. These events have also been characterised as ‘the implosion of the neoliberal city’. See Vargas 2019.
- 5. For analyses of the Chilean neoliberal ‘experiment’, see: Taylor 2002; 2006, Harvey 2005, Klein 2007; Dardot, Guéguen, Laval and Sauvêtre 2021.
- 6. The recent protests in Colombia, which emerged at the end of April 2021 and were directed against increased taxes and the health care reform proposed by the right-wing government of Iván Duque, are just another symptom of the contradictions that Latin American countries are experiencing, before and after the arrival of the pandemic.
- 7. Two important reports that describe the human rights situation in the context of the crisis are UNHR 2019 and INDH 2019; see also the documentary video report focusing on people blinded by the police in McDonald, Tovar and De La Cruz 2019.
- 8. Mayol and Cabrera 2017.
- 9. The last mass political demonstration was held by the feminist movement on 8 March 2020, in the context of International Women's Day.
- 10. Cristi 2017.
- 11. The unemployment rate reached close to 20% in mid-2020 as a result of the economic fallout of the pandemic. A year later, a World Bank report would also indicate that 2.3 million middle-class people were on the verge of poverty.
- 12. It is important to highlight that turnout in the election was only 51%, and that the participation rate would fall again (to 43%) in the mega-election of May 2021. Since the return to democracy in 1988, the rate of participation had steadily decreased, reaching a low of 34% in the municipal elections of 2016.
- 13. Some studies have indicated that around 80% of the elderly population that receives a pension from this system earns less than the minimum wage, therefore a large number of these individuals are actually below the poverty line.
- 14. To put it in other terms, social security savings are largely solving the economic difficulties of the middle and lower classes. Considering the entire cycle, it is interesting to speculate about what proportion of this withdrawal of money from the pension system was ultimately destined for banks as Chilean families used pension funds to repay loans and debts. The situation could be said to reflect the Žižekian interpretation of cynicism as a form of ideology at this juncture: all workers who have accumulated funds in their accounts (the author included) know perfectly well that withdrawals constitute dire public policy because they will directly impact their future pensions. Nevertheless, workers say: “I want my money, right now!” This popular demand has now passed all the institutional and political hurdles, confirming its social legitimacy.
- 15. Barlett 2021.
- 16. Mander and Stott 2021.