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A Majority in the Making

Juan Ignacio Latorre

Chile's reinvigorated left is ready to finally vanquish Pinochet's legacy and reclaim democracy for the many.

A Frente Amplio demonstration on December 4, 2017. Frente Amplio Chile

Interview by
Nicolas Allen

The Chilean left has been reborn in spectacular fashion. In a presidential race that was widely written off as a ceremonial victory for conservative candidate Sebastían Piñera and further evidence of the subcontinent’s rightward drift, the unexpected performance of Frente Amplio’s youth-driven, radical campaign has thrown that interpretation into question. Case in point: Frente Amplio’s presidential candidate Beatriz Sánchez narrowly missed a spot in the runoff against Piñera, coming within two points of beating out the centrist incumbent candidate Alejandro Guillier.

Among the Frenteamplistas who will now be looking to shake the foundations of the Chilean political establishment — a hollow shell of progressivism concealing the legacy of Pinochet — is Juan Ignacio Latorre, Frente Amplio’s first member in the Senate. On the eve of the runoff elections, we spoke to Senator Latorre in Valparaiso and discussed Frente’s origins, the inspiration provided by Spain’s Podemos, and Frente Amplio’s plans going forward as it looks to challenge Chile’s center-left and right-wing parties.


NA

What is the mood right now within the ranks of Frente Amplio? Surely the results of the recent election must have come as a surprise even for many Frenteamplistas?

JIL

We’re quite happy with the outcome. Elections here in Chile tend to inspire a sense of pessimism, and the period leading up to the general elections were no different. The polls and the media forecasted Frente Amplio’s presidential candidate Beatriz Sánchez performing at around 10 percent, and Frente Amplio’s parliamentary representation at around seven deputies, maybe one senator. So the projected outcome was quite poor, and the media spent the last two months really talking down the prospects for Frente Amplio.

Despite that pessimistic backdrop, our own experience — more subjective, if you like — of being in the streets, of doing grassroots organizing, was reflective of a more positive scenario. That perception was confirmed when Frente Amplio nearly beat Nueva Mayoria’s center-left candidate to compete in the presidential runoff election against the right-wing candidate Piñera. And it was again confirmed by important parliamentary victories that leave Frente Amplio with a significant bloc in parliament.

In addition to those positive results, Revolución Democratica, the party that I belong to within Frente Amplio, performed much better than anticipated. We won eight deputies, a senator, and several regional council members. We’re a new party, so the election was an important benchmark in which we met and exceeded the minimum votes necessary to constitute a legal party in accordance with the current electoral system. Moreover, as a rapidly emerging party we managed to outperform the Communist Party, the Party for Democracy (the social-democratic party identified with Chile’s democratic transition), all the historically significant center-left parties in Chile. And of course we won a senatorial seat that I will be occupying. So we’re very happy with the outcome.

We also emerged with a more critical understanding of the role played by the media and the polls in terms of how they shape public opinion. There were many people aware of our campaign who even wanted to vote for Beatriz Sanchez but were ultimately persuaded that we weren’t serious contenders, and opted to vote for the incumbent candidate when in actual fact we were within two points of making it into the runoff.

NA

So not only were the polls misleading, they were driven by a strong political bias.

JIL

Exactly, but it was also a complete failure on the part of the pollsters. As we’ve seen around the globe, it was yet another instance where polls and the media have failed to predict electoral trends or influence outcomes as they might have liked. It’s important to understand that much of the media was predicting that Piñera would win the votes necessary to take the election in the first round, which turned out to be far from the case (he won 37 percent, as opposed to the projected 45 percent). It goes without saying that the media in Chile is highly concentrated, and Piñera, himself a billionaire and the natural candidate for Chile’s business class, holds considerable sway.

NA

Is it possible based on the results to draw any conclusions or insights about the current climate of public opinion in Chile?

JIL

The largest takeaway is that the Chilean electorate wants to see Bachelet’s tentative reforms become a reality. The main political debate today in Chile revolves around a series of important reforms: fiscal reform, educational reform, and a new constitution. In truth, these reforms mean dismantling Pinochet’s legacy. Nevertheless, these reforms have stalled out over time, particularly during the second half of Bachelet’s most recent term in office.

The reform agenda is regularly attacked from the Right, who allege that the Chilean people don’t want political and economic reforms and that only a conservative government can put the nation back on track. Meanwhile, during the general elections and all the way up through the recent runoff debates, Alejandro Guillier, the incumbent candidate for Bachelet’s Nueva Mayoria, has been extremely ambiguous in terms of his stance on the reforms. Within Frente Amplio we regard these reforms as essential: ending Chile’s private pensions system, ending student debt, establishing a constituent assembly towards determining a new constitution, and so on.

What the positive performance of Frente Amplio means is that there is growing support for our platform and for the deepening of the reforms that began under Bachelet, a groundswell that, if you include the support for candidates of the center-left who basically represent a continuation of Bachelet’s platform, amounts to an overwhelming political and social majority that wants to see more radical  reforms. That majority may very well be fragmented among a number of different parties, coalitions and candidates, but they share that view in common.

The other lesson learned is that there is a growing anti-Piñera sentiment, a sense that Chilean society is turning its back on right-wing politics and that the prevailing interpretation is of Piñera as a regressive tendency more in keeping with the current neoconservative backlash in Latin America.

It remains to be seen in the December 17 runoff how the election will turn out, but as it stands it looks like it will be a very open contest and there is a great deal of uncertainty around the outcome. This forms a stark contrast with past runoffs, where the winner has been largely predictable, such as was the case with Bachelet’s last victory in 2013. The current scenario is much more open-ended, with the two largest variables being the demand for deepened reforms and a generalized anti-Piñera sentiment.

NA

When you say the elections will be unpredictable, I assume you’re referring to the number of votes that Guillier will carry, since Piñera’s share of the votes seems to be fairly stable.

JIL

One has to take into account that Piñera’s initial 36 percent will be supplemented in the runoff by another 8 percent corresponding to extreme right-wing candidate José Antonio Kast, the leader of Unión Demócrata Independiente, a party that basically carries the torch for Pinochet. So as a baseline figure Piñera will be looking to win between 42 percent or 44 percent of the votes. After that point, Piñera’s election will be determined by his ability to win over Christian Democrats and other centrist and liberal-oriented voters.

Still, that strategy might very well be complicated by Piñera’s reliance on the support of the Chilean extreme right, which has influence in the media and the military as well as in parliament, despite the party’s diminishing parliamentarian presence relative to the growth of Piñera’s party, the Renovación Nacional. But this pressure coming from the extreme right is not particularly compatible with a strategy of appealing to the political center.

Guillier is looking to build on the 22 percent he won in the first round by adding a significant part of Frente Amplio’s 20 percent. The center-left candidate Marco Enriquez-Ominami won 5 percent, the majority of which will be easily transferred over to Guillier. Meanwhile Groic from the Christian Democrats won 6 percent, which is basically the defining fraction: how much of that remaining 6 percent will break for Guillier and how much for Piñera.

Still, it remains to be seen whether the electorate that supports Frente Amplio will come out for Guillier or will simply abstain from voting. Speaking personally, my vote for Guillier is nothing more than a rejection of Piñera. I have very low expectations for a Guillier government.

NA

On the topic of voter abstention, Chile has extremely high rates- somewhere around 50 percent. Does Frente Amplio consider some part of that disaffected electorate to be a potential constituency? If so, does it have a strategy for engaging with those potential voters?

JIL

It’s important to clarify that voting is voluntary in Chile (unlike the majority of Latin American states), and so a significant part of the population between the ages of eighteen to thirty-five has never voted or participated in the electoral process. Frente Amplio did make a concerted effort throughout the campaign to engage with this disaffected segment. We’re still performing a detailed analysis of voting patterns, but what we’re initially finding is that we did in fact capture some of that group. In any case, there remains a lot of work to be done on this front.

The fact is that Chile has undergone a profound process of depoliticization over the last years. Many people are disconnected from politics; they are being misinformed or not receiving relevant information from the traditional news outlets. And among the youth there are substantial sectors that are disillusioned and critical of politics. Of course there is also a politicized fraction of the youth population, but they are a minority. It’s a big challenge to try to conceive of how to reconnect this majority with the electoral process.

Our motto has been “The Power of the Many” (El Poder de Muchos), the idea being that we are trying to channel the power of the majority: the common folk, the indebted, the precarious middle class, the university students who are struggling with student debt, the retirees with meager pensions, the working class, who all together make up the majority. But again, in the process of appealing to this majority you run up against a lot suspicion, a lot of skepticism, a distrust of the political class. Or you hear people claiming that the proposals we are advancing are too radical, that they’re not achievable.

The big challenge for Frente Amplio is really to change people’s mind about this last part, about the viability of radical politics. In order to convince the majority that our program is achievable we first need to expand our base in territorial terms. It was only this year that Frente Amplio was born as an electoral vehicle, and already with it we’ve seen the spread of the “comunales” [organizational chapters, grouped by district, or “comunas”]. The challenge now is for us to move beyond the elections and begin to work on grassroots organizing, to use the parliamentary seats as an avenue to revive the political struggle for control over our cities and mend the divorce that you find — not just in Chile, but everywhere — between institutional politics and the citizenry.

NA

Many of Frente Amplio’s leading political figures are veterans of the country’s explosive social movements, particularly the 2011 student protests. It seems in that sense that the Frente would be well positioned to do grassroots work.

JIL

Frente Amplio is not itself a party, but rather an umbrella organization made up of fourteen groups. Some of those groups are parties, like the Revolución Democratica of which I am a member, while others are political collectives, social movements, etc. So there is a diversity of political organizations marching under the Frente Amplio banner, where the common denominator has been the struggle against neoliberalism in Chile, a struggle waged on many different fronts that has been ongoing for years now: the student movement — both the high school movement of 2006 and the university movement from 2011 to 2013 — the “No Más AFP” movement, which is trying to end the private social security system in Chile, also social-environmental movements, feminist movements, to name just a few.

But again, the common denominator is the struggle against neoliberalism and the attempt to overcome the neoliberal model in Chile, where you find a diverse array of political expressions and political identities, ranging from those more inclined to social democratic positions, others, more Marxist, or environmentalists or feminists. Despite these differences, we have managed to agree upon a common program and to form a list of parliamentary candidates who soon will represent an important parliamentary bloc.

I would say that looking abroad, we’ve drawn inspiration from two sources. The first is Spain’s Podemos, which like Frente Amplio was informed by important social movements — namely, 15M — and includes interesting municipal projects like Barcelona en Comú that share a lot in common with Frente Amplio’s project in Valparaiso. The other is Uruguay’s Frente Amplio (the current governing coalition, led by President Tabaré Vázquez), which, while it does have a more institutional logic, is also composed of some very dynamic political forces. We’ve had the opportunity on numerous occasions to engage in dialogue with both groups and learn from them, and then to go on and adapt those lessons to the Chilean context.

We have studied the example of Uruguay’s Frente Amplio very closely. In fact, Guillier will be meeting shortly with former president José “Pepe” Mujica, of Uruguay’s Frente Amplio. It’s our hope that beyond the political photo-op, Guillier will actually learn something from Pepe Mujica. Mujica was responsible for implementing important progressive reforms — he instituted a successful collective bargaining model, something the former minister of finance for Bachelet, Rodrigo Valdés, claims is not feasible in Chile; he established a fully public social security system with a dignified pension for retirees, nothing like Chile’s unequal AFP pension system; free university education, and so on. These are all part of a legacy created by Frente Amplio’s will to realize political change in Uruguay.

Also, one of the things that particularly interested us about these precedents is how they handled elections. We were concerned that if Frente Amplio did poorly in elections that it would lead to splintering and fragmentation. The Chilean left is already highly fragmented, so that concern was always present. The positive performance has of course encouraged us to maintain the unity of the coalition.

NA

That seems to be a concern across the Latin American left: how to deal with electoral defeat. In other words, the worry was that a poor performance would not only derail the coalition, but also produce fragmentation among the social movement base that supports it?

JIL

The electoral battle is a vital if not altogether definitive part of Frente Amplio, since our project is focused on the long-term scenario. Of course we want to play a
part in the struggle for control over society’s institutions, but only provided we don’t lose the connection with the social movements. It’s true, our first election
would have been a disaster if, as the media had projected, we only won 10 percent in the presidential race, and the few parliamentary seats they originally predicted.

Podemos was interesting for us in that precise sense, because of their ability to contest power at the municipal level and then go on to do the same in Parliament,
with the ultimate objective of taking the government. The electoral logic for us is just that, to slowly scale upwards.

NA

Despite its considerable heterogeneity, it seems like Frente Amplio has a fairly coherent political agenda. Would it be fair to characterize that agenda in broad terms as the decommodification of basic social services, such as health, education, etc.?

JIL

We have in Chile an extreme form of neoliberalism that is expressed in the commodification of all social rights: health, education, pensions, and so on. So, on the one hand our agenda is based on the recuperation of those social rights, but the second element, which is equally important, is to see a deepening of Chilean democracy.

In Chile we still have a constitution that is a holdover from the Pinochet regime. It may have undergone some ancillary modifications during the democratic transition, but the core of the 1980 constitution instituted by Pinochet and the Chilean right wing remains intact, the same constitution that consecrates private property as the most important constitutional right, that tends to emphasize civic-political rights in detriment to social rights, that favors employers where labor rights are concerned. All of Chilean society is in a sense derived from the current constitution.

The democratic model of governance has also been seriously discredited in recent years due to a series of corruption scandals. Beyond that, the current system can’t seem to move beyond the same traditional parties, the same political figures, a system dominated by what we like to call an “oligopoly” that in practical terms means the routine exchange of power back-and-forth between the center-left and center-right.

So what we have at present is an exclusionary, low-intensity democracy that is perpetually alienating voters. Our proposal involves a repoliticization of Chilean society and a more radical democracy beginning with a new constitution for the twenty-first century that would not only serve as a safeguard for representative democracy, but also promote new forms of direct participatory democracy.

NA

You recently cited Podemos as a source of inspiration, and it seems like you share a lot of similar talking points. The comparison brings to mind another parallel between Spain and Chile, namely the “democratic transitions” that have been remarkably similar in both countries in terms of the preserving and normalizing many of the neoliberal economic policies instituted during the respective dictatorships.

JIL

To stay with the comparison of how the two groups were first formed: I think the learning curve for Frente Amplio was much steeper; just look at how quickly Podemos grew in its first year, much more so than Frente Amplio. Spain’s 15-M coincided with Chile’s student movement, but after that point Podemos was more strategic about conquering power at the municipal level — something we were slower to achieve.

In fact, last year during municipal elections we didn’t manage to compete in elections as Frente Amplio, despite initial attempts in that direction. The one exception was Valparaiso, where Jorge Sharp won the mayorship and was able to create a convergence of different Left tendencies. This is all by way of contrast with Podemos, which very quickly decided that it was going to contest power at the level of local government and try to demonstrate that there was a real alternative to the two-party system, a new system characterized by participatory models of democracy, greater transparency, and so on.

So I think the Spanish case is a valuable point of comparison with Chile not just because of the dictatorship and the authoritarian legacies that both countries have inherited, but because of the corruption underlying the two-party system in both countries, which leads to an explosion of indignation that not only takes corruption as its target, but also looks to combat the neoliberal offensive against social rights.

The comparison with Podemos is based on the common idea of a democratic popular alternative beyond the two-party system that can represent the majority and defend social rights. This strategy and the audacity that came with it, to contest power at the local level, was a great source of inspiration. The fact of the matter is that at present we’ve only been able to implement that strategy in Valparaiso.

NA

It’s striking that Frente Amplio places such an emphasis on “democracy.” The Latin American left of late has often tended to focus more on the social dimension — redistribution, income inequality, etc. — and often been more equivocal about the exact meaning of “democracy.” Could we chalk that difference up to the so-called “Chilean exception”?

JIL

I think that it should be regarded as Frente Amplio’s unique contribution to the region, in the sense that, for so long now, Chile has been held up internationally as
the model of a high-quality Latin American democracy. We are calling attention to the reality that our constitution is the inheritance of a civilian-military dictatorship;
that our election campaigns are corrupt affairs financed by economic interests that have kidnapped democracy for the 1 percent.

We also argue that the considerable social achievements of progressive governments should not be used to naturalize corruption; we need to create standards of integrity and transparency in government administration while encouraging a deepening of participatory democracy.

NA

Is there something in particular about the city of Valparaiso, that it would be the site where Frente Amplio has been able to successfully implement the strategy that some are calling “new municipalism” or “municipal socialism”?

JIL

I think Valparaiso is where of all places in Chile you find, on the one hand, the most powerful convergence of citizen indignation, social movements, political collectives, and so on, and on the other hand extreme corruption at the local level that has been a constant in all local governments, be they of the Right or center-left.

On that basis it became clear that there was a need for a citizens’ alternative capable of channeling that indignation and of uniting the diverse social movements around a common program. True, we ran on that program in a particular electoral context in which the right-wing candidate was brazenly corrupt, and the center-left had chosen a ridiculous candidate associated with the tabloids. It was in that context that Jorge Sharp, a former leader of the 2011 student movement, was able to run as an independent candidate with a novel political discourse based in transparency, of returning political control to the citizens, and channeling forces from the left but also embracing political struggles that are not explicitly based in leftist political identities. So having won the mayorship with Sharp, the experience in Valparaiso became the pilot for what would become the Frente Amplio project.

That victory, the “Sharpazo” as we call it, was the beginning of a process that has only gained in strength with the recent elections, where in Valparaiso we won four regional council members, three deputies, and myself, a senator, not to mention a huge showing for Beatriz Sánchez (36 percent, roughly). Our goal now will be to continue to strengthen our parliamentary bloc with the participation of social movements, citizens’ groups, students, and so on.

NA

It often seems that on the Latin American left there is an underlying tension between building political movements around a pronounced left identity on the one hand, or opting for a more broad-based “national-popular” position, i.e. populism. Was that tension ever present at any point with Frente Amplio?

JIL

In the formative stages of Frente Amplio there was a great deal of debate on the topic, and we ultimately determined that, while most of the organizations and individuals involved — myself included — are on the Left, we needed to include political tendencies that are not self-described as “leftist.”

For example, there are many environmental struggles taking place in Chile that question the current economic model and neoliberalism in particular, but that don’t historically fit within the classic narrative of the Left in Chile. Or the feminist struggle, or different social movements that are involved in particular struggles around the right to the city, battles for affordable housing, all of them citizens’ struggles that don’t fit easily into any left identity.

A case in point is the convergence between Frente Amplio and the “No Más AFP” movement, which protests the current private pension system and fights for the right to social security. The movement is a confluence of all kinds of political tendencies — social democrats, anticapitalists, all different kinds of groups. This of course was the basic idea behind our creating a broad front, to build a vehicle that could embrace these types of citizens’ demands, to channel their indignation against corruption and against the vagaries of the business class, without having to rally behind the idea of being on the Left.

NA

Should Guillier win, what will Frente Amplio’s position be with respect to working with the Nueva Mayoria government?

JIL

The topic of collaboration has been the subject of intense internal debate, and not just among the leadership of Frente Amplio; the discussion has taken place among the constituent parties’ bases and among the different political groups and movements that comprise Frente Amplio. We arrived at the following position: Frente Amplio will act as the opposition to whatever party happens to be in power, be it Guillier or Piñera.

At the same time, we are not indifferent to the outcome of the elections: a Piñera victory would represent a major step backwards for Chile. That being the case, Frente Amplio will not call for its supporters to vote for Guillier and instead will leave that choice completely up to the individual.

Where we will be vocal is in pressing for Guillier to incorporate aspects of the Frente Amplio platform as he tries to woo our supporters, to win over Frente Amplio supporters with a concrete political agenda and not simply run on an anti-Piñera ticket. The issue of pensions, the proposal of a constituent assembly, we’ve decided to leave these and other touchstones of our platform on the table and let Guillier win over Frente Amplio supporters by specifically addressing them, rather than issuing some kind of ballot instructions. This is the agreement we’ve reached.

There are many public figures from Frente Amplio, such as Beatriz Sánchez, who have publicly expressed their intention to vote for Guillier, while there are others who are still waiting to hear more concrete measures from the incumbent party. Broadly speaking, there is a diversity of opinions on the matter. Where there is a basic agreement is that we will be the future opposition of whatever government comes to power.

It’s not in our plans to become a junior partner in a ruling coalition with Nueva Mayoria, or to stump for Guiller on the campaign trail. Our long-term ambition is for Frente Amplio to become the majority party of Chile.