The backpack that Gabriel Boric will carry on his back starting March 11 onward is not light. The eyes (and hopes) of a significant portion of the Latin American left will be particularly attentive to what happens in Chile during the next four years.
The panorama for the regional left changed after successive defeats that consolidates a sense of “change of epoch,” marked by the triumph of Mauricio Macri in Argentina in November 2015, the victories of Sebastián Pinera in Chile and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil in 2018, the coup d’état against Evo Morales in Bolivia and the defeat of the Frente Amplio in Uruguay in 2019 at the hands of Luis Lacalle Pou.
After the retreat in that five-year period, the situation seems to be changing again. The left returned to government in Argentina with Alberto Fernandez and in Bolivia with Luis Arce, and Pedro Castillo in Peru and Andrés López Obrador in Mexico also won elections. In addition, Boric prevailed in the second round of December 2021 and this year there are expectations for the possible triumphs of Gustavo Petro in Colombia and Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva in Brazil.
However, Boric’s cycle to be inaugurated this Friday has peculiarities within the regional progressive camp, in terms of generational change, gender parity and even for the symbolism that links him to an unfinished process undertaken by the socialist Salvador Allende in the 70s.
In addition, his leadership is impossible to separate with a process of social mobilization that began with the student protests of 2011 and culminated with the “social outburst” of 2019 and the subsequent plebiscite of 2020, which endorsed the constitutional reform process that is underway. Like Allende, Boric comes to the government with the support of a heterogeneous coalition of parties and it is probable that his administration will also go through moments of internal tensions and conflicts.
His background and the student mobilization
Boric, 36 years old, comes from the south, from the region of Magallanes and Chilean Antarctica. He recalls that when he went to Santiago de Chile to study law, he found it difficult to adapt and that is why he always asserts his origins.
His great-grandfather, Juan, arrived at the end of the 19th century from Croatia. His great-uncle Vladimiro was the first diocesan bishop of Punta Arenas, and his father, Luis, was a militant of Christian Democracy.
When he arrived in the country’s capital, he enrolled in law school at the University of Chile. While he was studying at the faculty, he was an assistant professor of Institutional History of Chile, Theory of Justice and International Human Rights Law.
During that period, he had an active student militancy and was one of the most visible faces of the student mobilization of 2011. He became president of the Student Federation of the University of Chile, after winning an election against the communist militant Camila Vallejo.
Political career and the first difficult decisions
The student mobilizations catapulted him to the country’s national scene and in March 2014 he assumed the position of deputy, which he renewed in the 2017 elections. In 2018 he founded Convergencia Social, a left-wing party that is part of the Frente Amplio.
As a legislator he participated in the “Agreement for Social Peace and the New Constitution,” signed on November 15, 2019 —one month after the “social outburst”— and which served as the basis for the call for the election of a Constitutional Convention. That position cost him criticism inside Convergencia Social, a conflict that ended with the resignation of 73 militants, among them, the Mayor of Valparaiso, Jorge Sharp.
Putting his signature on that document was one of the hardest things he had to do, he acknowledged two years later, then a presidential candidate.
Despite the fact that in 2019 and 2020 he had stated that he was not willing to be a candidate, on March 17, 2021, his party, Convergencia Social, proclaimed him as a candidate to the presidency of Chile. A few days later, he added the support of the Democratic Revolution Party, whose main reference is Giorgio Jackson, one of Boric’s closest leaders.
Although he was not a favorite inside the Apruebo Dignidad coalition —a name that pays homage to the constituent process— he was the surprise of the primaries when he defeated the candidate of the Communist Party, Daniel Jadue. “If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its tomb,” were Boric’s first words on the night of July 18, already as a proclaimed presidential candidate.
The rest of the story is known. In the first round of November 21, he got 25.8% of the votes (1,814,809 people), a result lower than expected, but in the runoff, he managed to prevail against the ultra-right winger Jose Antonio Kast, with 55,8% of the votes.
“The campaign was struck by coming second in the first round. They weren’t expecting it. However, I believe the result ended up being important by what came later, because it showed that the danger was real, and that it was necessary to mobilize. That is what defined the second round: a feeling that it was necessary to move, or Kast was going to become the government,” admitted Sebastian Kralkevich, chief strategist of the campaign, in an interview with ARN.
The path of moderation
To win in the second round and avoid a far-right victory, Boric had to make “substantive turns” and moderate his discourse, affirms Josefina Araos Bralic, a researcher at the Institute for the Study of Society (IES).
“In parallel to the campaign against Kast, Boric summoned the former Concertación, (a coalition of center-left political parties in founded in 1988) with which there were previously quite tense relations, and at the same time, paradoxically, he appropriated part of Kast’s discourse. He had to moderate himself. He lowered the prominence of his “without borders” agenda for the migration issue and began to monitor more closely the demands for security,” the researcher retraced.
She adds: “He also began to speak more explicitly on the need for gradual changes, thus calming the business world. It is a narrative that moderates and reconciles itself a bit with recent history. The discourse began to be “we are heirs of pathways that others have started, who advanced as far as they could and now, we have to make changes but based on that.”
This trend, according to Araos Bralic, led Boric to a “moderation in the narrative,” something that also reflects his political capacity to understand “the complexity” of Chilean society. “He understood that leftist projects must be able to embody change and security, transformations and certainties. He has that in favor and explains that certain optimism and hopeful air that surrounds him. It is new air,” concludes the analyst.
The rapprochement between social-democratic sectors of the former Concertación and Boric’s entourage is not a minor deed for the Chilean progressive camp. A review of the comments made by young Chilean students more than a decade ago in social networks show the distance that had existed between both worlds.
“(Ricardo) Lagos is awfully arrogant, self-referential and a politician of the past,” Boric wrote on his Twitter account in March 2011, almost ten years before the former Chilean president gave him his support for the runoff. “What I am, what my history is, my past, obviously at this juncture I have to say Boric,” were the words used by former President Lagos to express his support to Boric, who obviously thanked the gesture.
The synthesis of this rapprochement between the former Concertación and the Apruebo Dignidad sectors can be seen in the composition of the cabinet. In addition to the sign of gradualism with the appointment of Mario Marcel in the Ministry of Finance, there will be three members of the Socialist Party in key positions: Maya Fernandez in the Ministry of Defense, Carlos Montes in Housing and Antonia Urrejola in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Party for Democracy (PPD) will be represented by Jeanette Vega in the Ministry of Social Development, the Radical Party (PR) by Marcela Hernando in Mining and the Liberal Party (PL) by Juan Carlos Garcia in Public Works. The Christian Democracy (DC), an important piece in the cycle of the former Concertación, was left out of Boric’s cabinet, in which the need to have more powerful majorities in an a priori quite adverse Parliament also weighed.
These difficulties led Boric to adopt a more moderate and gradualist approach, which already cost him the first criticism of the Communist Party, for example after the designation of Marcel as the referent of the economic team.
Araos Bralic says that these internal tensions could complicate the first months of Boric’s government, who will have to resort to his “political instinct” to deal with these situations. “He is clever and there is a reason why and how he won,” she points out.
“Everything will depend on him being able to manage and read reality well, with a lot of caution, moderation, and humility. Moderation does not imply that he cannot undertake profound changes, but with the attitude of being always attentive to whether he is reading society correctly,” she concludes.