Many Chileans breathed a sigh of relief on the night of December 19—not just in the headquarters of the Chilean left but also in their homes and on social media—at news of the electoral defeat of the reactionary neoliberal far right, nostalgic for the old dictatorship (1973–89). José Antonio Kast had lost the presidential race to the left-wing coalition Apruebo Dignidad (AD, Approve Dignity), led by Gabriel Boric, an alliance of the Communist Party (PC), Frente Amplio (Broad Front, FA), and regional green parties. Crowds rejoiced in the streets of Santiago and nationwide. The sounds of car horns and singing went on late into the night. The former laboratory of neoliberalism had turned to the left.
The result had not been a foregone conclusion, however, given the high number of undecided voters. In the first round, 53 percent of the electorate didn’t vote, confirming a trend observed since Chile’s transition to democracy in 1990 and especially pronounced since the end of compulsory voting in 2012: a huge abstention rate and growing disenchantment with a democratization process characterized by uninterrupted neoliberalism and many lingering legacies from the dictatorship.
Between the two rounds of voting, Boric’s campaign team tried to reach out beyond Santiago’s middle class, his core demographic, to remoter parts of the country, including rural areas and poor neighborhoods. Their aim was to mobilize the abstainers and close the gap in areas where Kast had received strong support. It worked: Turnout jumped to almost 56 percent in the second round, and for the first time over 8 million Chileans voted. Boric beat Kast by more than 10 points.
Boric’s campaign manager Izkia Siches, 35, played a decisive role in this winning strategy, successfully revitalizing the campaign. Siches, who was president of Colmed, the Chilean Medical College, during the pandemic, is known for her opposition to the incumbent president Sebastián Piñera’s health policy. Early election data suggests that women, the working class, and the young were the key factors behind the victory, contributing significantly to the almost 1 million difference in votes between the candidates. The left did especially well in Santiago’s poor western districts, scoring over 70 percent in some of them. Estimates indicate that 68 percent of women under 30 voted for Boric, while Kast won among people over 70.
The first-round result was a surprise: Kast, a 55-year-old ultraconservative Catholic lawyer and father of nine, came first with 28 percent, ahead of Boric at 25.8 percent. However, hope of a decisive Boric victory remained, given his exceptional trajectory over the past decade: He had begun in the autonomous left of the 2000s, then led the University of Chile Student Federation in 2011, during the great mobilization of young people for “free, public, quality” education.
Reformist and post-neoliberal
He entered parliament in 2013 as an independent without any party support, an achievement in the Chilean electoral system, which favors coalitions of centrist parties over independents. He was then reelected alongside figures from the student movement such as Camila Vallejo of the Communist Party and Giorgio Jackson, who became his right-hand man. Boric and Jackson cofounded the FA in 2017, strategically positioning it between the historical Communist left, whose touchstones were Castro and Bolívar, and the traditional parties of the old center-left Concertación, the coalition of the Socialist Party and Christian Democrats which governed from 1990 to 2010 and was reviled for its faithful adherence to neoliberalism.