Chile, with a voter turnout of just over 55 percent, has elected the 35 year-old candidate of the left, Gabriel Boric, as its new president. The result was overwhelming: 55.8 percent for Boric against 44.2 percent for the right-wing candidate José Antonio Kast.
In absolute terms, this is the largest winning margin in the history of the country, with the youngest president ever elected in Chile and with the highest turnout of voters.
This unprecedented phenomenon is the result of hard times for Chile. After a mass protest movement that summoned millions to the streets, known as the estallido social (the social explosion), a path was opened to build a new constitution which would, for the first time, anchor equal, universal rights, and whose drafting would be an inclusive process, with representatives of long-excluded indigenous peoples assured.
That rising confidence in Chileans to demand fairness, normative values and representation then faced a pandemic that put the country’s social, health and police security systems to the test. The sharp increase in unemployment and a stagnant economy affected living standards and the public spirit.
The strategy of the right-wing government was to close Chile’s borders and to choose more domestic enemies on whom "war was declared" (two years ago, war was declared on protestors against social inequality; this year, the enemy within was the indigenous Mapuche, protesting for land rights). Fortunately, the government also established a very effective vaccination plan.
For its part, the left opposition did not always understand the true sentiment behind these citizen demands and did not always synchronize with the tangible needs of the voters. The socialist left believed that the conditions were in place to significantly accelerate the end of the neoliberal model; social equality and justice movements saw the definitive deepening of democracy as the guarantee for defending the rights that protestors sought.
This was how the political environment looked when Chileans went to vote in the first round of presidential elections in November. The result was unexpected.
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The representative of the furthest conservative right, Kast, won almost 30 percent of the votes, followed by Gabriel Boric, representing an alliance of independent socialists, linked to grassroots social movements, and in alliance with the Communist Party. The traditional center-right and center-left blocks came in fourth and fifth.
Thus the second electoral round was highly competitive, necessitating a profound change in Boric’s speeches and especially in the manner in which he expressed his convictions, downplaying more dogmatic leftism. Both candidates, at least rhetorically, moved to the political center, but using language that was often unduly aggressive.
That contentious speech was then reflected back by Chileans, particularly within the Jewish world, in which attacks on both Kast and Boric prevailed, often lacking democratic reflection and dialogue around real issues and arguments.
Yes, Kast is clearly sympathetic to much of the dictator Pinochet’s legacy, and to a strident form of nationalism. Boric endorsed a critique of Israel that makes every Jew, from Chile to Chicago, responsible for what happens there.
But labels like "Nazi" (for Kast) or "antisemitic" (for Boric) were too easily bandied around and served to obscure the candidates' real and historical preferences, and were often accompanied by fake news and unfounded complaints. Both Kast and Boric presented platforms and persona more complex than can be reduced to a single slur word.
Yesterday's result elucidates several key phenomena for Chile and for its Jewish community.
The struggle for rights and opportunity by women and young people, and the reality of sexual diversity, have long been effectively invisible to most of society. Both Boric’s campaign and his first words once elected addressed these groups, who not only helped swing the election, but above all, represent a renewed vision for Chile.
Chile has been saved from a presidency led by Kast who would have pushed Chile in the opposite direction. As a candidate, he mocked sexual diversity, promoted restrictions on the rights already won by women and serially referenced far right conspiracy theories about a New World Order instigated by George Soros, whom he associated with the Chilean left.
Boric exhibited great charisma in his campaigning, but also responsibility and significant endorsements, touring the entire country accompanied by Izkia Siches, president of the Chilean Medical College, a women’s rights activist and a key expert during the COVID pandemic.
His voters themselves expressed the same sense of civic responsibility: despite a serious failure of public transport on election day, citizens generated alternative transport mechanisms to guarantee the right to vote.
In his victory speech, president-elect Boric emphasized that his government is heir to a "historical trajectory, which from different positions have tirelessly sought justice, the expansion of democracy, the defense of human rights and freedoms." That was a clear statement of intent to broaden his political base and allyships to incorporate liberal, center-left and independent voices.
"This is my big family," he declared, "that I would like to see reunited again in this stage that we are now beginning."
And he promised to protect democracy and the right to dissent: "Never, for any reason, should a president declare war on his own people."
The Jewish world should embrace this new moment, with a president-elect who states clearly he will "be the president of all Chileans." We know that there are many doubts and fears. There are real concerns about Boric’s relationship with the Jewish community in Chile and his stance towards Israel.
Without ignoring these concerns, we must engage with the new government, put forward our proposals and also our fears. I am sure that the diversity of the Chilean Jewish community means we can both contribute directly to the new government, while there will be those, too, who will aid a constructive opposition.
For Chile’s Jews, and its institutions, the beginning of the Boric era is both a challenge and a compelling opportunity.