Back in May the headline was “Chile shifts left”, when elections to the constitutional convention gave a majority to assorted groups on the left. Now a bigger prize has fallen: the far left’s Gabriel Boric was elected president of Chile on Sunday, beating the far right’s José Antonio Kast with a very comfortable 55.9% to 44.1%, a margin of not quite a million votes. (See official results here.)
Kast promptly conceded defeat and congratulated Boric, saying that he “deserves all our respect and constructive collaboration.” That’s a very non-Trumpy sentiment; if it holds up, it’s a welcome contrast to the right’s treatment of the last far-left president, Salvador Allende, when political polarisation produced chaos, followed by a military coup and dictatorship.
For the moment, however, what matters more is Boric’s attitude. He also struck a conciliatory note, promising to govern for all Chileans and to “build bridges” with his opponents. There are certainly signs that, despite his radical background, Boric is willing to tack towards the mainstream – not unlike Pedro Castillo, elected president of neighboring Peru earlier this year, who has surprised some observers (including me) with his relative moderation.
Laurence Blair’s report in the Guardian on Boric’s win refers to “dividing lines of a generational and philosophical nature within Latin America’s left,” and quotes Chilean journalist Javier Rebolledo to distinguish “the traditional ‘Marxist’ left” from “the softer, more Scandinavian cut of Boric’s politics.” The comparison with Scandinavia is tempting, but I thought more of the contrast between Greece’s Alexis Tsipras and the more doctrinaire hard left of Jeremy Corbyn or Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
In any case, the momentum in Latin America is now definitely on the side of the left, however one characterises it. Last year’s surprise win in Bolivia has been followed this year in Peru, Honduras and Chile, with strong prospects next year in Colombia and Brazil. Only Ecuador went the other way.
None of this new wave of leftist leaders look like having an easy time of it. Covid-19 has wreaked havoc in the region, and the military and the rest of the right-wing establishment still pose powerful obstacles to a progressive program. Nor is there much sign that the left’s desire to address inequality has yet been leavened with an understanding of economics.
Let’s hope that Boric and the rest can not only stave off the threat of reaction from the right, but can curb the authoritarian tendencies that have plagued the Latin American left for so long.