In Chile’s upcoming elections, the progressive Frente Amplio coalition aims to reshape grassroots and institutional politics to end the neoliberal model and establish a more horizontal form of participatory democracy.

In the 1990s, Chilean sociologist Tomás Moulián compared Chilean democracy to a birdcage: the bird represented democracy and while it could fly, it could not break free from the limitations posed by neoliberalism. In other words, Chilean democracy was fenced in by strangleholds related to the Constitution of the Republic – written in General Augusto Pinochet’s time – and the process of neoliberalisation initiated in the late 1970s and continued after the Washington Consensus. Written in the acclaimed book Chile Actual: Anatomía de un Mito (Chile Today: Anatomy of a Myth), the metaphor provided a graphic snapshot of Chile after the end of Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-1990) and the beginning of democratic administrations.

With the passing of time and the military’s withdrawal from major positions of power – especially after the Chilean state played a key role in taking Pinochet from London to Chile to avoid trial in Spain for crimes against humanity – the country’s economic path did not change. Having campaigned under the slogan ‘Growth with equality’, the administration of Third Way socialist Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006) followed an economic policy in keeping with neoliberal guidelines. Indeed, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank praised Chile as a prosperous and stable country. However, Chileans increasingly felt that their democracy failed to reflect or consider public sentiment, did not address problems connected to basic rights – such as access to water or the right to public education – and did not challenge the unbalanced distribution of income that today makes Chile the most unequal country within OECD nations.

Several contentious movements made explicit this malaise during those years, but there were always political obstacles that along with the weakness of social organisations, state repression and a culture that rejected large-scale cooperation, watered down the attempts to affect political power in a sustained way. This trend shifted in 2011 through a seven-month wave of protest led by university and high school students in opposition to the segregated, privatised and market-driven education system implemented during the military dictatorship, and subsequently deepened by successive social democrat and rightwing administrations (1990-2011). The movement brought together different organisations, from the Communist Youth to many new groups that were outside the traditional Chilean left. After one year in power of the first rightwing administration since the return to democracy– led by businessman Sebastián Piñera – the mobilisation emerged on an unexpected scale and amid widespread support. The student-led movement was on the streets, in the media, at home and across the nation as a new political actor demanding to speak and be heard.

Another kind of politics

While the movement did not achieve students’ demands in the short term – ‘we are not even close to the goals we set as a movement’ said Giorgio Jackson, one of the leaders, in 2012 – there were key changes in the institutional realm of Chilean politics. The first one was the damage to Sebastián Piñera’s popularity that ultimately led Michelle Bachelet to win the 2013 presidential election promising free education for everyone and a new Constitution. The move was observed with scepticism by the a large section of the student movement, who did not back her campaign. With the exception of the Communist Party – who joined Bachelet’s coalition of Social and Christian democratic parties – the student movement understood nothing was going to change dramatically if the same people who contributed to the inequality gap in education, deepened private public education and indebted families through high-interest loans, remained in power.

The second change arose from the parliamentary elections of 2013. Five candidates for the Deputy Chamber had been student representatives, including the most recognisable leaders of the 2011 movement: Camila Vallejo, of the Communist Party (PC), and Giorgio Jackson, who ran under the newly created organisation Revolución Democrática (Democratic Revolution). Both were elected, along with Karol Cariola, also of the PC, and Gabriel Boric, then a member of Izquierda Autónoma (Autonomous Left). Their advance to Congress was, however, the tip of the iceberg: the rise of what is known today as Frente Amplio (Broad Front), a new political sector on the left which aims to build grassroots participation in the political arena, in local municipalities, regional councils, National Congress and the presidency.

Comprising 13 different organisations ranging ideologically from Marxist to ecologist, including Movimiento Autonomista (Autonomist Movement), Nueva Democracia (New Democracy), Partido Humanista (Humanist Party), Revolución Democrática, Partido Igualdad (Equality Party) and others, the coalition is glued together by the will to contest neoliberalism and move towards a participative democracy that protects and fosters social rights. In the local domain, Frente Amplio faces two main political adversaries: the rightwing coalition Chile Vamos (Let’s Go Chile) and the Christian social-democrat – and now also Communist – Nueva Mayoría (New Majority). Both have been hegemonic coalitions which have deepened the neoliberal model in Chile, maintained a vertical and elitist way of doing politics and been involved in cases of corruption connected to campaign funding. Frente Amplio emerged within this restricted political landscape.

Building a programme

On 19 November, Chile will choose its next president, as well as 155 seats in the Deputy Chamber (one of the two chambers of National Congress, the other being the Senate) and its regional counsellors. The organisations and parties of Frente Amplio will compete across the country for all these positions. To select its candidate, the constituent parties held a primary election in which radio journalist Beatriz Sánchez faced the sociologist Alberto Mayol in May. Sánchez was nominated.

While the nomination received criticism – for opting for a candidate with public appeal rather than a background in any of the organisations or a grassroots commitment to a particular cause – the presidential programme of Frente Amplio has been built on a core principle of participatory democracy. This was initiated through territorial discussions involving 12,000 people in 102 communes throughout Chile and abroad.

So, what does the programme say? Frente Amplio’s manifesto advocates ending the unequal distribution of wealth and renationalising social services such as education, health, pensions and water provision. This means strengthening the public health system by increasing the quality of the service, the number of staff and providing drugs and medicines at a fair price; guaranteeing high-quality education that is free and universal, from childcare to university, and abolishing privatised student debt. It also considers ending the private pension system and creating a social security system; the protection of rights for children under 12 years old, with special attention on ensuring state administration of foster care institutions rather than private corporations. These policies will be funded through taxes on the super-rich, by collecting 5 per cent of total revenues of private mining and by ending exemptions over profits of the stock market and big companies.

Polls predict that Beatriz Sánchez will win 12-17 per cent of the vote on 19 November and therefore probably will not reach the run-off against the election favourite: the rightwing businessman and former president Piñera – yes, the same one who was in power during the 2011 emergence of the student movement. But despite what might occur, Frente Amplio will stake its chances on elections for members of the Deputy Chamber. Its real challenge will come in the days and months after the election: to either consolidate the Front as a third actor in mainstream and grassroots Chilean politics, or disintegrate into several parts unable to contest neoliberalism’s continuous advance in every corner of people’s lives.

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