Chile’s next president to govern historic transition

Gabriel Boric may be hindered by deeply fragmented Congress, where negotiations will be necessary to advance his agenda.

Chile's President-elect Gabriel Boric celebrates with supporters after winning the election in Santiago, Chile, December 19, 2021 [File: Rodrigo Garrido/Reuters]

Antofagasta, Chile – Chile’s next president will be in power during an historic period of constitutional transition, but opposition in Congress is expected to hinder Gabriel Boric‘s ambitious, social-democratic agenda when he takes office next year.

Boric, a 35-year-old left-wing congressman and former student movement leader, was elected on Sunday after defeating far-right candidate Jose Antonio Kast by more than 11 percentage points.

Voter turnout, especially high among women and young Chileans, was greater than in any election since mandatory voting was scrapped in the South American nation in 2012 – and when he officially takes up the presidency in March, Boric will be Chile’s youngest-ever president.

Boric’s broad socio-democratic and openly feminist platform, which promised a pension system overhaul, universal public health, progressive tax reform, and a focus on human rights and combatting climate change.

He was also the only candidate with consequential proposals to decentralise governance and to shift towards a more sustainable development model, said Matias Garreton, a researcher with the Centre for Social Conflict and Cohesion Studies and professor at the Adolfo Ibanez University in Santiago.

Young people are clear on the need to transform the country’s development model, he said. “And I think it is one of the reasons behind Boric’s meteoric rise, going in one year from not even being a contender to being Chile’s youngest president-elect ever,” Garreton told Al Jazeera.

New constitution

When Boric takes office on March 11, he will also be the first Chilean president not to hail from the Santiago or Valparaiso regions in central Chile. The president-elect is from Punta Arenas, 2,180km (1,355 miles) by air south of Santiago, the capital.

Rising to prominence as a student movement leader during mass protests 10 years ago, he was first elected to the Chamber of Deputies of Chile’s bicameral Congress in 2013 and re-elected in 2017.

In the first six months of his presidency, there will be a referendum on a new constitution currently being developed by a convention of elected citizen representatives, half of them women.

Replacing the 1980 Augusto Pinochet dictatorship-era constitution was a key early demand of mass protests that erupted in October 2019 – and one that Boric supported. He has pledged his government’s full support, while respecting the convention’s autonomy.

“We have reaffirmed our total willingness to collaborate with the constitutional process and with the convention,” Boric told reporters on Monday after meeting with the body’s leadership.

Supporters of Chilean President-elect Gabriel Boric ride on the back of a truck as they celebrate after he won the election, in Santiago, Chile, December 19, 2021 [File: Ivan Alvarado/Reuters]

The new constitution is expected to produce far-reaching changes, including recognition of Chile as a plurinational state. Twenty of the 155 constitutional convention members are Indigenous, and 17 of them hold seats secured for representation for Chile’s 10 Indigenous peoples.

“For original peoples, the new constitution consists of the possibility of an end to political oppression,” said Salvador Millaleo, an Indigenous Mapuche law professor at the University of Chile. “It will be an instrument that will help us establish a new relationship in the country between the state and original peoples.”

Shift in Indigenous relations

Currently, that relationship is one of open hostility in the Indigenous Mapuche region in southern Chile, where longstanding and sometimes violent land conflicts with forestry companies persist. Mapuche people have been charged under anti-terrorism laws, and several have been killed by Carabineros police over the years.

“Government [responses] have been characterised by criminalisation, sending in more police forces and now also the military, and then instead of seeing conflict resolution, they see conflicts increase,” Millaleo told Al Jazeera.

Outgoing President Sebastian Pinera declared a two-week state of emergency in a Mapuche area in October and sent in the military following a rise in arson and confrontations.

“It is to better confront terrorism, drug trafficking and organised crime, and is in no way directed against a people or group of peaceful citizens,” Pinera said when he decreed the measure, noting the presence of armed groups.

The state of emergency in four provinces of the La Araucania and Biobio regions, more than 500km (310 miles) south of the capital, has since been extended every two weeks, most recently on Tuesday in the Senate.

Boric voted in Congress against the extension of the state of emergency and opposes the militarisation of the ongoing conflicts. His programme puts land restitution on the table as part of open dialogue on equal footing with Indigenous peoples.

“I think it will be one of the most complex issues for the next administration but also one in which the government, with a different approach from that to date, could make a huge difference,” said Millaleo.

Uphill battle in Congress

However, Boric will likely face complex challenges in the next Congress, which will be extremely fragmented when it is seated in March.

The parties in his Apruebo Dignidad coalition only have a fraction of the seats, and some of Boric’s key campaign promises depend on legislation. Some centre-left parties are currently considering aligning with Apruebo Dignidad, while right-wing parties are sorting out the role of the far right.

“I think it is going to be a [few months] of a lot of negotiation to forge those alliances,” said Federica Sanchez Staniak, a political science professor at the Alberto Hurtado University in Santiago and a member of the Red de Politologas network of women political scientists.

Regardless, the opposition will have a majority and Boric will need to seek dialogue and agreements, said Sanchez Staniak, who added that if the right wing opts to obstruct the president’s agenda, his popular support could wane.

Boric’s programme also depends on additional state resources generated through his proposed fiscal and tax reforms. But the proposed measure with the highest potential is combatting tax evasion, said Garreton.

“That is not about changing the law. It is about applying the law,” he said, adding that a focus on reducing tax evasion alone could provide the resources needed in the first part of Boric’s time in office.

But Garreton stressed that with the new constitution expected to lead to more profound transformations for Chile, it remains unclear how Boric’s presidency will unfold. “No one has a crystal ball,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera