Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Chile votes, shrugs it off [updated]

Chile, where I spent one-third of my life, just held presidential and legislative elections, and my reading of the results is that times really have changed there in a startling way. The electoral outcome isn’t obviously dramatic, but what the polling numbers—and the winners—say about the future is very telling.

As many people may be aware, the popular ex-president, Michelle Bachelet, is on her way to a crushing second-round victory for another four-year term. But her program this second time around is rather amazing in that it seems to be lifted directly from the placards of the student protesters who plagued her predecessor in a more-or-less non-stop multi-year protest. She says she agrees that says the country should have free university education and should rewrite the 1981 constitution that was rammed down Chile’s collective throat during the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship.

In fact, Bachelet is going to be dealing even more directly with four of those student leaders, including the now famous Camila Vallejo, who won seats in the country’s parliament headquartered in Valparaíso. Bachelet’s center-left governing coalition, which has been in power for 20 of the 24 post-Pinochet years, boosted its parliamentary bloc from 57 to 68 seats (out of 120) in the lower house and from 20 to 21 senators out of 38.

But hidden in the rosy figures for the social democratic “New Majority” pols is the very considerable abstention rate of 44 percent, which in the Chilean case is not so much a sign of apathy (though it is certainly a factor) but of outright rejection of electoral politics, especially by the young.

Of course, it’s hard to draw judgments from a non-act like not going to the polls. But young Chileans have been massively turned off to electoral politics ever since Pinochet was slowly eased out as president in 1990. Despite the heady promises of those early years, the incoming “democratic” parties kept far too much of the dictatorship’s structural changes intact.

The lethargy reached a peak when the current president, billionaire Sebastián Piñera, beat former president Eduardo Frei in 2009 enabling the pinochetista parties to form the first right-wing government in 20 years. They might now regret it. Paradoxically, that might have been the best thing that could have happened to the hibernating social movements. Without the superficially sympathetic liberals and socialists in the government any more, students exasperated with their expensive, low-quality education and bleak employment prospects hit the streets and haven’t left them since.

That’s why careful calculations of whether Bachelet’s coalition has enough votes to pass constitutional reforms (some of which require a 3/5 or 2/3 vote) is missing the point. No one would even be talking about constitutional reform if the younger generations had not made life hell for the powers that be, and everything they are saying now indicates that they have no intention of giving Mme. Michelle a free ride based on pretty words.

[Update] I wrote most of this yesterday and then hours later received this hilarious account of voting day from a friend there:

My hairdresser called her 20-year-old son and asked him whether he had done his civic duty yet, and he said he was still in his pyjamas (at 4 p.m.) so she yelled a few garabatos and told him he had to vote.

When she came back at night feeling exhausted after the ordeal at her local precinct, she asked him about his civic duty again. He said he had reached the place where he had to vote at 5 minutes past 6 which was the closing time, and when he entered there was a total silence and all of a sudden everyone started applauding. He was quite surprised.

They said, the polls are closed, but we will make an exception and let you vote because you are the first and only young person who has set foot in this voting location.

So as you see, I'm not making it up. País ganador!


Anonymous said...

Fascinating! Thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting that hundreds of mostly young people from a variety of civil society organizations attending COP19, the UN summit on climate change in Warsaw, have just walked out of the summit in protest that nothings is being achieved there (nor is likely to be in the remaining two days) because powerful, polluting nations like the US, Japan, Canada, Australia, et. al. have been blocking every attempt at meaningful change. They represent groups like Greenpeace, Oxfam, the International Trade Union Federation, and Friends of the Earth. They vow to turn to social movements to "light a fire" under the political hacks who hold the reins of power. Let's see.