Chile’s New Leftist Millennial President Elect Vows Big Changes

After winning a historic victory in Chile’s presidential runoff election, former Marxist student leader Gabriel Boric will face immediate pressure from his young fans to keep his pledges to rebuild the country.

Boric traveled around Chile for months, claiming to create a youth-led, inclusive government to combat persistent poverty and inequality, which he claims are the unacceptable underbelly of a free market model imposed decades ago by Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.

The audacity of the pledge paid off. Boric easily trounced his opponent, far-right congressman José Antonio Kast, with 56 percent of the vote on Sunday, becoming Chile’s youngest modern president at the age of 35.

Boric climbed atop a metal barricade in downtown Santiago to reach the platform, where he delivered a stirring victory address to thousands of primarily young people in the indigenous Mapuche language.

“We are a generation that has come into public life asking that our rights be valued as such, rather than being regarded as consumer products or a business,” Boric added. “We recognize that there is still justice for the affluent and justice for the poor, and we will no longer allow the poor to bear the brunt of Chile’s inequity.”

In his address, the bespectacled, bearded president-elect emphasized the progressive principles that began his unlikely campaign, including a pledge to fight climate change by opposing a proposed mining operation in the world’s largest copper-producing country.

He also advocated for an end to Chile’s privatized pension system, which was a feature of Pinochet’s neoliberal economic paradigm.

It’s an ambitious plan made more difficult by a gridlocked congress and ideological differences that resurfaced throughout the brutal campaign, invoking the ghosts of Chile’s past.

Kast, who has defended Chile’s previous military dictatorship, finished two points ahead of Boric in the first round of voting last month. In the head-to-head runoff, however, his attempt to paint his opponent as a puppet of his Communist Party colleagues who would upend Latin America’s most stable, sophisticated economy fell short.

Despite this, Kast promptly accepted defeat, tweeting a photo of himself on the phone congratulating his opponent on his “great success” in a display of democratic decorum that contrasted with the campaign’s inflammatory rhetoric. Later, he headed to Boric’s campaign headquarters to meet with his opponent.

Outgoing President Sebastian Pinera, a conservative millionaire, spoke with Boric via video conference to give his government’s full support throughout the three-month transition. This comes after a runoff in which 1.2 million more Chileans voted than in the first round, bringing turnout to about 56 percent, the highest since obligatory voting ended in 2012.

“It’s difficult not to be struck by the huge attendance, Kast’s readiness to concede and congratulate his opponent even before the official results were in, and President Pinera’s kind sentiments,” said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Wilson Center’s Latin America program in Washington. “Today, Chilean democracy was unquestionably victorious.”

Young fans of Boric carried banners branded with the candidate’s name while leaping and chanting as they walked downtown for his victory speech in Santiago’s metro, where a fare rise in 2019 sparked a wave of countrywide demonstrations that revealed the flaws in Chile’s free market economy.

Boris Soto, a teacher, stated, “This is a historic day.” “Not only have we overcome fascism and the right wing, but we’ve also destroyed fear.”

Boric, who will take office in March, will be Chile’s youngest modern president and just the second millennial to rule in Latin America, following El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele. Only one other head of state is younger, Giacomo Simoncini of the European city-state of San Marino.

Chile has always been a forerunner of regional trends, thus the incoming administration is expected to be keenly scrutinized throughout Latin America.

With the election of Salvador Allende in 1970, Chile became the first Latin American country to defy US supremacy and embrace socialism throughout the Cold War. It then changed direction a few years later, when Pinochet’s coup brought in an era of right-wing military dictatorship, which immediately started a free market experiment across the area.

Boric’s lofty objective is to establish a European-style social democracy that would enhance economic and political rights to combat persistent inequality while avoiding the authoritarianism espoused by much of Latin America’s left, from Cuba to Venezuela. The coronavirus epidemic has accelerated the reverse of a decade of economic progress, making this a more urgent task.

Boric was able to win by reaching outside his base in Santiago, Chile’s capital, and winning supporters from the countryside. For example, he defeated Kast by about 20 points in the northern region of Antofagasta, where he finished third in the first round of voting.

Chilean women, a significant voting constituency, were also crucial to his triumph, as they believed that a Kast victory would reverse years of gradual progress. Kast, a fervent Roman Catholic and father of nine children, has a long history of assaulting Chile’s LGBTQ population and lobbying for stricter abortion regulations. One of his followers even made a joke about it.

Boric stated in his victory speech that Chile’s women will be “protagonists” in a government that aims to “leave behind the patriarchal heritage of our society once and for all.”

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