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Chilean elections show a new political dynamism

Traditional political players in Chile are challenged by new socio-political forces.

Last updated: 14 Nov 2013 13:30
Simon Escoffier

Simon Escoffier is a DPhil candidate at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, and a postgraduate research associate at the Oxford Programme for the Future of Cities.
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Emerging grassroot political movements will influence Chile's political future [EPA]

Chile's presidential elections are due to be held on November 17 in a  special political setting. Since the return to democracy in 1988, Chile's institutional politics have always been divided into two powerful party coalitions: the Concertacion (centre and left-wing parties), and the Chilean Alliance (right-wing parties). Since 2006, and especially during the last few years (during Sebastian Pinera's current presidency), new arrangements of citizenship brought into question this entrenched political order.

By citizenship, I mean a group's access to expressing their political rights through institutional political representation. Therefore, citizenship expresses how much people feel represented by political institutions.

How Chileans relate to the state and other institutions has changed in the past years, and this election expresses those shifts. This election is historically unique because it brought to the fore new parties and novel independent candidates. Topics never before discussed by presidential candidates have been addressed. These new socio-political developments are particularly visible on the left.

Weakening of coalitions

One of the main factors that will dominate the November 17 elections is that none of the traditionally powerful coalitions represent an answer to major national issues. (Candidates affiliations and political orientations can be found here.)

Changes in the socio-political configuration of Chile began with the growing student movement which periodically took to the streets in the past 12 years.

Centre-left parties (excluding the Communist Party) united during the 1980s in order to defeat the dictatorship in a coalition called Concertacion de Partidos por la Democracia (Concert of Parties for Democracy). Despite many people's expectations that they would promote egalitarianism and justice in the country after the dictatorship, the Concertacion managed to deepen Chile's exclusionary and neo-liberal system.

Although once inspirational and progressive, the Concertacion became engrained in the state's bureaucratic structure. Accordingly, they got involved in collusion and corruption scandals, gave little salience to the transitional justice process, increasingly based strategies on electoral research, and had a strong top-down emphasis that neglected people's empowerment.

During the Concertacion period of rule, authorities managed to open Chile's market through a large number of free trade agreements (Chile holds 22 commercial agreements with 60 countries, including the US, China, and the EU).

Reacting to their low popularity, the Concertacion recently decided to change their name, creating a new coalition: New Majority. The New Majority includes all the centre-left Concertacion parties, as well as the Communist party.

On the other side of the spectrum, Chilean Alliance has also lost representation, especially among the right-wing youth. The Alliance demonstrated that it is ready to reject any progressive initiative in terms of civil or social rights, moving away from the more liberal branches of the right (leading a centre-right wing movement, neo-liberal Bellolio represents such liberal ideals [Sp]).

Additionally, charismatic right-wing candidate Laurence Golborne, stepped down after a fraud scandal involving the company he led for years, effected more than 600,000 consumers. The Chilean Alliance was left with no choice but a bureaucratic reaction, diminishing their leadership and opening spaces for alternative candidates, like Franco Parisi.

People's empowerment

Changes in the socio-political configuration of Chile began with the growing student movement which periodically took to the streets in the past 12 years. However, it was only in 2011 that the movement had the experience, the structure, and the inclusivity to become convincing enough to challenge Chile's neo-liberal system, beyond specific educational demands. Students exposed a system-wide machinery of segregation, privilege and injustice - rooted in Pinochet's policies - that provided an explanation for people's grievances in diverse areas. Public debate ultimately identified the 1980s constitution as the basis for most national inequality reproduction.

Debating with experienced politicians, and demonstrating rigorous collective action, students mobilised in large numbers of over 100,000, marching in Santiago alone. Despite the students' public positive evaluation (over 70 percent [Sp] ), authorities took no measures and increased repression, radicalising the movement, confirming narratives of authoritarianism, and installing education in the centre of any political discussion.

The lack of any shifts in educational matters since 2006 - despite two waves of massive nationwide protests - accentuated the already increasing distrust towards politicians.

In addition to student demonstrations, many other movements became salient in Santiago [Sp], and across the country, protesting over resources, decentralisation and environmental issues: There was a municipal workers protest, conflicts in Aysen, Chanaral [Sp], and Freirina, and unrest over a hydroelectric dam in Patagonia, among others.

At the same time, this growing mobilisation could not be captured by the traditional left. The fact that the Communist Party joined the New Majority coalition is compelling evidence on how much the left has compromised in negotiations with other parties in the last years. Accordingly, the Communist Party increasingly separated from popular grassroots movements.

Indeed, although polls show her as a clear winner, Bachelet has been compelled to take clear positions on topics never before discussed in Chile's presidential elections, like the establishment of a Constituent Assembly, sea resources exploitation rights, pollution-related health issues and educational segregation.

These developments opened an opportunity for novel leftist movements to construct connections and leaderships with a spontaneity hitherto non-existent. Struggling over housing rights and opposing gentrification, the Movement of Dwellers in Struggle - MPL[Sp] - is an example of these new trends (for more on the movement see this publication p 201).

A growing political alternative

In this context, a new emerging political force could quickly fill a gap between leftist grassroots popular movements, such as MPL, and political parties.

Living in San Bernardo - one of Santiago's poorest districts - and representing the newly created Partido Igualdad (Equality Party), Roxana Miranda personifies the new state of Chilean citizenship. In fact, she only became a candidate after contentiously leading [Sp] a grassroots housing debtors movement (ANDHA). In a struggle for the right to housing, Miranda has led several occupations and protests against financial institutions and politicians, including Michelle Bachelet.

Partido Igualdad distanced itself from the Communist Party, as well as from other traditionally leftist parties, claiming to be the only far-left alternative that truly represents the poor. In presidential debates and interviews, Miranda has explained, for example, that instead of going to the dentist, people in shantytowns sometimes fix a broken tooth with glue [Sp], a statement which caused great controversy.

Speaking about her own housing debts, the experience of living in a 36-square-metre social housing unit, the dramatically low wages of the poor, and providing testimonial examples about the tough life in Santiago's peripheral ghettos, Miranda manages to unveil a reality generally omitted from Chile's public discourse, especially from ceremonious presidential debates.

Like Miranda, other candidates have also contributed to breaking the dual political landscape in Chile. While Alfredo Sfeir and Ricardo Israel brought environmental issues and decentralisation to the fore, independent centre-right candidate Parisi managed to erode the traditional right-wing coalition's resonance alluding to liberal values and some social rights.

Additionally, candidates have seen the need for addressing new topics emerging essentially from social unrest in the past few years. Indeed, although polls show her as a clear winner, Bachelet has been compelled to take clear positions on topics never before discussed in Chile's presidential elections, like the establishment of a Constituent Assembly, sea resources exploitation rights, pollution-related health issues and educational segregation.

Although with less "closeness" and legitimacy than before, Bachelet still offers security to voters - unlike most other candidates. However, despite her inevitable landslide victory, Chile's political scenario is far from unipolar and static.

Simon Escoffier is a DPhil candidate at St Antony's College, University of Oxford, and a postgraduate research associate at the Oxford Programme for the Future of Cities.

Follow him on Twitter: @SimonEscoffier

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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