Trumpism in the Andes?

For a couple of years, there appeared to be a big movement towards the left, and even to the far left, in Latin America. One of the markers was in December 2021, when the far left’s Gabriel Boric was elected president of Chile, beating the far right’s José Antonio Kast by almost a million votes, 55.9% to 44.1%.

But it looks as if that swing has petered out. One sign was the fact that in Brazil last year the left’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva could manage only a narrow win against far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, despite previously having a big lead in the polls. And another setback came last September when Chile’s new draft constitution, which Boric had strongly supported, was heavily defeated in a referendum, with a “no” vote of 61.9%.

The Chileans didn’t give up on the idea of a new constitution, but they went back to square one and devised a new process: a new, much smaller, constitutional council would be elected (a third of the size of the previous convention), and in conjunction with a body of 24 experts it would produce a new draft to be put to a referendum next year. Elections for the council were held last Sunday, and they were a major surprise.

Kast’s Republican Party, which had hitherto ignored the process, topped the poll with 34.3% of the vote and 23 of the 51 seats. The centre-right ticket, Safe Chile, had another 20.4% and 11 seats, meaning that between them they have more than the three-fifths majority needed to approve a draft. The left-wing ticket, Unity for Chile, could manage only 27.7% and 16 seats, with one seat for an indigenous representative.

That’s a huge turnaround in the less than two years since the previous convention was elected with a large left-wing majority. Political parties come and go, but it’s most unusual for the underlying partisan balance of the vote to change so much in such a short time – most of it, it would seem, in the nine months between the presidential election and the first referendum.

Perhaps Boric’s administration has done something to especially upset Chilean voters (although it’s not at all clear what). Or perhaps it provides some support for the popular thesis – which I’ve argued against on a number of occasions – that Trumpism is a game-changer, and that Trumpist parties like the Republicans are capable of disrupting traditional allegiances and attracting a large number of naturally left-leaning voters.

Or maybe there’s another explanation. Let’s look at some numbers: here are the last four nationwide votes in Chile (the convention election, the presidential election, the referendum and Sunday’s vote), with votes broken down between left and right,* including both raw numbers and percentages.

When you just look at the numbers voting, the left has been pretty consistent; Sunday’s figure was only 136,000 less than for the convention two years earlier. But the turnout has almost doubled, producing a huge jump in the right’s vote, which is now five times the size and almost three times the percentage.

I confess I’m usually very sceptical of explanations that rely on turnout, but this is a case where it really leaps out at you. It looks very much as if the left’s victories were produced not by winning over sceptical voters, but by having them stay home. Kast may not have changed people’s political allegiance much, but he brought them out to vote.

Increased participation is a good thing; if the process of constitutional revision has motivated more Chileans to go the polls, that’s good for democracy. (The decline of the Covid-19 pandemic may well have helped, too.) But it’s bad news for Boric and the left, who need to work on convincing those new voters that Trumpism is not the answer.


* That is, counting votes for and against the first draft constitution as left and right respectively, and allocating parties in the elections to one side or the other (including counting indigenous representatives as “left”). The figures are all available at the electoral commission’s website, with only elementary Spanish required, although for the May 2021 convention election the aggregation is tricky so I’ve used Wikipedia’s summary.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.