Table of Contents

The eruption of massive popular protests in Chile in October 2019—sparked by an increase in subway fares but soon galvanizing around a wide set of socioeconomic demands—startled many Chileans and external observers. A country long considered one of Latin America’s most renowned economic success stories and most consensus-oriented political systems revealed itself to be harshly divided. The central rift behind the protests has been between the country’s social, political, and economic establishment, on the one hand, and most Chileans, who feel excluded from and abused by that establishment, on the other. A fractured political party system unable to channel demands—and perceived as out of touch with peoples’ desire for change—opened deep fissures in the society, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. The upcoming election of a Constituent Assembly in April 2021 and the ensuing process of drafting and approving a new constitution will take place in a country facing serious risks of either political fragmentation or a turn toward illiberal populism. International actors can play a helpful role in reducing these risks if they take seriously the depth of the divide and its long roots.

Anti-establishment Versus Establishment Divide

Massive social turmoil in October 2019 cemented the formation of a broad anti-establishment movement, directed not only at traditional political elites but also at business elites and, in fact, at most social and political institutions. In the wake of the 2019 protests, two still-standing institutions suffered abrupt legitimacy declines. First, the security forces’ massive human rights violations against protesters dealt a major blow to their reputation. Second, mainstream media came under attack for its purported pro-government coverage of the events, in particular its tendency to emphasize riots, looting, and protesters’ violence.

The anti-establishment movement strengthened in opposition to what it considers an “abuse coalition” made up of influential social and business elites as well as the “political class,” represented by the main institutions in the country. In this view, under the permissive conditions allowed by the 1980 Constitution, the abuse coalition colluded and disproportionately captured the rents of Chile’s long run of unprecedented economic growth. Several simmering developments laid the ground for this rift.

Juan Pablo Luna
Juan Pablo Luna is a professor of political science at the Instituto de Ciencia Política and the Escuela de Gobierno of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

First, for decades, consumption and education were financed through debt, and economic returns on education were less than expected. The generation of young people coming of age in the past ten to fifteen years found it hard to access better jobs, while, at the same time, their parents were moving into financially precarious retirement. Healthcare disparities between the elite and the rest exacerbated the picture.

Second, a series of corruption scandals starting in the 2000s further shattered many institutions’ reputations as protectors of the common good. These scandals exposed how business elites financed political campaigns and inappropriately (if not illegally) gained leverage over legislative and regulatory processes that favored their interests. Other scandals related to irregularities and abuse, such as using usury rates in debt financing, especially education- and consumption-related debt incurred by the middle and lower-middle classes to finance their upward mobility aspirations. Another series of scandals buffeted highly prized political and social institutions, such as the police, the armed forces, and the Catholic Church.

A third element fueling pressure was the fact that the consensus-oriented party system demobilized civil society and depoliticized conflict in society. Chile’s democracy seemed unresponsive to people’s grievances. Declining voter turnout rates became a chronic feature of the political system, fueling the system’s tendencies to operate at some distance from society and social organizations.

Starting in the mid-2000s, young people and other groups, such as pension beneficiaries and feminist social movements, responded to this troubled convergence of institutional deficiencies by turning to the streets, politicizing discontent in ways that bypassed political and other mainstream institutions. Mobilization and violent protests brought results, emerging as the only viable way to elicit concrete responses from the establishment. Over time, the protest impulse gained strength from the underlying patterns of socioeconomic exclusion, political stasis, and institutional delegitimization—until finally exploding in massive protests in 2019.

Fragmentation in the Political System

The protest movement coexists uneasily with a political system that weakened due to both the traditional political parties’ credibility crisis and the consolidation of increasingly personalistic leadership in those parties. The electoral system reform—introduced in 2015 to replace an unrepresentative electoral system inherited from the military regime, which was called the binomial system—also introduced features that have encouraged the mushrooming of new political parties and groups. The reform introduced an open-list, proportional representation system, with districts ranging from three to eight elected representatives each for the lower chamber. It not only induced greater fragmentation and competition through the creation of new parties outside the bounds of the center-left to center-right spectrum but also favored electoral mobilization attempts by anti-establishment and more personalistic leaders.

These changes began to undercut Chile’s politics of compromise and consensus that had long been viewed as central to the country’s economic development and social progress. Centrist politics gradually changed its valence as many Chileans came to see the perceived virtuous negotiations and pacts among ideologically diverse groups of the past as arrangements and processes of abuse, collusion, smoked-filled rooms, and political kitchens.

It was in this context of an inflamed protest movement and a fragmenting political system that the Acuerdo por la Paz Social y la Nueva Constitución (Agreement for Social Peace and the New Constitution) was reached in November 2019. It set out a plan for a referendum to be held in 2020 on whether to initiate a constitutional reform process. This process would allow Chileans to move the country away from its current constitution put in place by former authoritarian president Augusto Pinochet and associated with the neoliberal model’s negative distributive impacts. The agreement was drafted by the major parties in desperation after days of uncontrollable rioting and heavy repression by security forces. According to a confidential author source in the presidential palace, the president decided to negotiate the pact with Congress only after the army withdrew to its barracks and the police threatened to strike.

In the lead up to the referendum, both political camps polarized the debate and the campaign. Contrary to the expectations of many observers, the protest movement proved capable of gaining electoral traction, even though it lacked leaders and a clearly articulated programmatic base. In the October 2020 referendum, the movement demonstrated its disruptive electoral potential: 78 percent of the electorate supported the drafting of a new constitution and 79 percent of voters opposed the participation of incumbent members of Congress in a constituent assembly.

In short, polarization in the formal political sector was much greater than in society, where a broad consensus had emerged around the imperative of fundamental change. The political system and social and business elites had lost touch with society and artificially recreated an imaginary right-left cleavage. In other words, political elites engaged in polarization in a futile effort to recast societal demands in their own terms. Ultimately, they failed to realize that the main problem is not the message but the illegitimacy of the messengers.

Pandemic Effects

Into these churning sociopolitical waters, the pandemic arrived. Having sunk to a popularity rating of 6 percent in December 2019, the government of President Sebastián Piñera saw the arrival of the pandemic as an opportunity for redemption. It rolled out an innovative strategy called dynamic quarantines to manage the pandemic without crippling the economy. That plan soon backfired as deaths surged and a new scandal related to purported sizable omissions in the official death toll emerged. The government ended up facing accusations of letting people die to save the economy, reinforcing its troubled reputation among the population. This polarized environment contributed to the undoing of a promising plan to secure intensive care for those in need.

Moreover, the government significantly delayed its economic assistance packages and sought to target assistance in ways that delayed implementation and provoked debate over its targeting criteria. Those discussions triggered opposition proposals to allow families to tap into private pension savings to self-finance their needs. Congress passed such a measure with the votes of numerous government-affiliated legislators who defected from their leadership positions in response to social pressure. Social elites in the country (like technocrats, business associations, and the mainstream media) actively opposed the project, although popular support for it was close to 90 percent.

Confrontation between the executive and the legislative branches of government rose sharply while mayors increased their visibility by opposing some national-level actions and politicians. Such opposition widened the emergent, post-October 2019 divide between local, socially connected politicians and the political establishment. The president’s low popularity ratings incentivized infighting within his coalition, increasing factionalism and personalistic attempts at taking advantage of the legitimacy crisis. The perception that Piñera was a premature lame duck grew, and various presidential wannabees emerged from the infighting, both congressional mavericks and municipal leaders.

At the same time, the coronavirus pandemic has weakened social mobilization and protests—at least for the time being—due to quarantines and restrictions on movement, including a nighttime curfew apparently motivated more by politics than by public health concerns. The long tail of economic damage could prolong this effect, as people are less likely to strike and protest when desperate to make ends meet. In the long to medium run, however, pandemic-related outcomes might reinforce discontent and ultimately rekindle mobilization. Most available evidence to date points to the regressive impact of the pandemic, as most deaths concentrate in poorer communities. The same communities are also disproportionately hit by the recession and school shutdowns.

Two Future Risks

A comparative analysis of Chile’s current political situation suggests that fragmentation and personalization may continue to grow, deepening polarization and further denting the system’s legitimacy. Two future scenarios seem most likely. On the one hand, fragmentation may intensify, reducing governability and increasing political turnover (a Peru-like scenario). On the other hand, a personalist leader could emerge, successfully channeling discontent against the system (a populist scenario). These two outcomes are not mutually exclusive; they could occur in sequence.

These risks are apparent in discussions concerning the ideal composition of the Constituent Assembly to be elected in April 2021. While the electoral system strongly favors incumbent parties, society did vote in the October 2020 referendum against the parties and their leadership. Demands for independents to be included in the lists have mushroomed, as have self-proclaimed independent candidacies. Yet, established parties read the referendum’s outcome (due to the relatively high turnout and societal enthusiasm with the process) as the endorsement of their purported success at channeling popular discontent.

What Could Help?

Though marked by the actions of many specific political and social actors, the causes of Chile’s current political situation are largely structural and asymmetric. In other words, they cannot be reversed in the near term by inducing systemic actors to rapidly switch gears from the last three decades. Such an entrenched elite can hardly turn on a dime to absorb a massive wave of popular discontent. Trying to carry off such a shift would likely exacerbate legitimacy problems instead of successfully addressing them.

What can international actors do to help improve the situation? First, they can depolarize social and political elites. This could include fostering needed debates about alternative development models for the country. Economic elites in Chile need to recraft the country’s capitalist system to make it more socially, institutionally, and environmentally sustainable. Yet, in their current discourse, they characterize all alternatives to the current economic model as the pathway to a leftist Venezuelan nightmare—even though the existing system has lost its institutional embeddedness and moral economy and cannot be salvaged. Helping to moderate and enhance the sophistication of this economic debate is an urgent task.

Second, international actors could promote the social and political articulation of popular discontent, both to develop sound and feasible political alternatives and to promote a dialogue between political actors and society. Existing mechanisms—like promoting cabildos (town halls) to discuss the constitution—do not go far enough. Those initiatives are prey to huge selection biases, which favor already politicized and engaged citizens. While the process is important and engaging such persons is useful, it falls short of engaging popular actors that today are outside the system, dedicating themselves to organizing collective action to oppose and disrupt institutional politics. It is thus fundamental to design complex policy interventions purposely aimed at enabling the political voice of those most affected by the intersectional inequalities that characterize contemporary Chilean society.

Juan Pablo Luna is a professor of political science at the Instituto de Ciencia Política and the Escuela de Gobierno of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. He is also an associate researcher at the Millennium Institute for Foundational Research on Data, where he is currently pursuing research on the interaction between data-intense societies, state capacity, and democratic representation.