Chile’s Youngest President-Elect Gabriel Boric Has a Unique Chance to Right Many Wrongs

Boric's ambitious programme of pension, health and tax reform, among other key items, will need much fine-tuning to get through Congress, where his coalition does not have a majority.

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There was no teleprompter for Gabriel Boric, Chile’s president-elect. His first speech after being elected as Chile’s youngest president ever, at barely 35 years of age, was delivered with his usual brio and gusto, albeit from an old-fashioned set of printed pages he took out from his jacket.

His arrival at the grand stage at Alameda Bernardo O’Higgins and Santa Rosa, in the heart of downtown Santiago, not too far from where Salvador Allende gave his own speech after his election on September 4, 1970, was not exactly meticulously planned by his team. In fact, Boric had to jump over a fence to get to the podium. But once he did so, he captivated the tens of thousands who filled the Chilean capital’s main artery, and the millions that were watching and listening in the rest of the country.

Welcome to millennial politics, Chilean style. Don’t expect much formality or protocol from the young men and women set to run Chile from March 11, 2022 onwards. But they know what they want, know how to get there, and in a scarce ten years have moved from manning the barricades at student demonstrations, to La Moneda, Chile’s presidential palace.

The standard phrase about Chile’s December 19, second-round presidential election, was that “it was the most significant election in a generation”. That is true, but it is hard to overestimate the significance of what transpired that day. There will be a new ruling coalition in Chile, one that has never held power before; it will be led by an intimidatingly young head of state; and he was elected with 4.6 million votes, more than any of his predecessors, and with a 12-point differential with his contender, pinochetista José Antonio Kast. Boric claimed 55.8% of votes counted to defeat Antonio Kast who got 44.1% votes.

Chilean presidential candidate Jose Antonio Kast gives a speech to concede defeat after Chile’s presidential election, in Santiago, Chile, December 19, 2021. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Much has been made of Boric’s inexperience, something that goes without saying for somebody who moved seamlessly from student leader to MP for his native Punta Arenas, Chile’s southernmost city (“almost touching Antarctica”, as he put it in his acceptance speech). He has never run a business or met a payroll. Yet, political campaigns, and particularly in a country with such strong democratic traditions as Chile, and one hit by the double whammy of a pandemic and an economic recession, can be a gruelling ordeal, one that tests to the core the mettle of men and women. And 2021 was one such constant test for him.

If we backtrack to the early months of 2021, the conventional wisdom then was that, despite all that had happened, the polls still gave Joaquín Lavín, then-mayor of Las Condes, and perennial candidate of the Right, an edge to win the year-end presidential elections. Boric was stomping at the bit to run, but had trouble in gathering enough signatures to register his candidacy, which was considered a bit of a prank by the political establishment.

Yet, he managed to get the necessary signatures in due course, and then moved on to the next challenge, the primaries inside his coalition, Apruebo Dignidad. The latter has played a critical role in Chile’s process towards a new Constitution and the election of a Constitutional Convention that is now drafting a new basic charter for the country. Once again, Boric was seen as the underdog as he faced Daniel Jadue, the mayor of Recoleta, the candidate of the Communist Party, known for his managerial skills and high name recognition. Yet, overcoming the legendary organisation and discipline of the Communist Party and its cadres, Boric prevailed and won handily, only to get ready to run in the first-round presidential elections on November 21.

At this point, most polls put Boric in the lead in a crowded field of seven candidates, with some showing as much as 35% of support. Yet, a bit of bad luck and some overconfident strategists and advisors, who rattled the cage a bit too much, allowed hard-right José Antonio Kast, a big supporter of Pinochet’s dictatorship, to edge Boric out of the first place, if only for a couple of points – 28% to 25% – in those elections. For the past 20 years, the winner in the first round of presidential elections in Chile has ended up winning the second round, and once again Boric was given up on by many. With crime on the rise, law and order was more of a wedge issue than social change, or so the argument went.

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Yet, Boric listened to the right advice, moderated his discourse, brought into his campaign some experienced economists from the old center-left parties, and reached out to former presidents like Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet, who promptly endorsed his candidacy. Despite all the acrimony that had preceded it (Boric had made much political capital out of denouncing the governments of Lagos and Bachelet), this shotgun marriage between the New and the Old Left, seemed to work.

Amazingly, the result of the December 19, 2021 presidential election was quite similar to the one of the October 5, 1988 plebiscite that ended Chile’s military dictatorship – 56% versus 44%.

What happens now?

Boric’s inauguration will not take place until March 11, 2022. But there is much he needs to do before that moment arrives. His ambitious programme of pension, health and tax reform, among other key items, will need much fine-tuning and expert shepherding to get through Congress, where Apruebo Dignidad, his coalition, does not have a majority.

Boric has promised to govern for the benefit of all Chileans, not just those who voted for him. This will also mean broadening his coalition, if he wants his legislative programme to be approved and enacted. The business community is a bit restless, and needs assuaging, which the appointment of seasoned technocrats to key economic portfolios like finance would attain. Given the pandemic and the economic recession Chile has been through in the past two years, capital flight is rampant. All this needs urgent attention from the incoming administration, as does reaching out to the experienced cadres who have made Chile into Latin America’s most developed country.

Reforms at the right pace are the mantra for Chile at the start of this new decade. Whether president-elect Boric will manage to pull them through is an open question. But there is no doubt that he has the chance to lift Chile into another stage of its development and leave behind the malaise that has affected the country over the past few years.

Jorge Heine is research professor at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University, a Wilson Center global fellow and a former Chilean ambassador to India.