Chilean Students Run For Congress

Chilean Students Run For Congress

Several former Chilean student leaders are capitalizing on their high approval ratings to run for Congress and challenge Chile binomial voting system.

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Giorgio Jackson. Photo by Brittany Peterson.

Giorgio Jackson, 26, was vice president of a chapter of the Chile Student Federation in 2011 when the movement saw regular marches of over 100,000 people take over the streets. Universities and high schools were occupied for months. The demands were clear: students wanted free, quality, public education and an end to profiteering. Jackson participated in regular dialogues with government ministers and congresspeople, and was disappointed with the indifference he found despite his movement’s massive 80 percent public support. “I felt frustrated that no one understood our proposal, or would defend it, or that there wasn’t a single voice to remain firm in defending our alternative,” said Jackson. “We deserve to have a space there.”

In a logical next step for the young negotiator, Jackson has decided to run for a seat in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress.

Jackson isn’t the only one strategizing a new political era for Chile. Twenty thirteen is a presidential election year, and with the return of former President Michelle Bachelet after nearly three years as the director of UN Women, the debate has heated up as to who is fit to lead the country for the next four-year term.

Twenty-thirteen will also mark the forty-year anniversary of the US-backed military coup that toppled democratically elected Socialist President Salvador Allende and installed army general Augusto Pinochet. After Pinochet was ousted by a national referendum, Chile saw twenty years of democracy under the center-left coalition, called the Concertación. The right-wing Alianza coalition gained power in 2010 with President Sebastián Piñera.

In today’s election debates, no widely supported candidate (not even Bachelet, who is a member of the same party as Allende) has seriously entertained the possibility of a national platform similar to his. That would require drastic changes to the neoliberal economic model installed during the dictatorship that ultimately created a stable economy in Chile. Although far from perfect, Allende’s abandoned “Chilean Path to Socialism” made healthcare and education public, nationalized large industries, implemented rural land reform, and expanded social security to part-time workers, among other significant public initiatives.

The national social movements that have emerged since 2011 demand a revisiting of some of these concepts through reforming privatized resources and services such as water and education in Chile. These movements have proven to wield significant mobilizing power, and have brought the country to a halt, as recently witnessed with the massive worker strikes at Chile’s largest ports and copper mining companies. Many of the individuals involved are deciding whether to back an existing presidential candidate who can be trusted to support their demands. The highly coordinated education movement is at the forefront of this debate.

“The ideal would be a candidate genuinely bound to the agenda of change toward universal rights, participatory democracy, a model of development based on a new, productive, diverse matrix, and who pushes the other candidates to broaden the margins of the topics we are discussing,” said Francisco Figueroa, former vice president of the University of Chile Student Federation and candidate for the Izquierda Autónoma (Autonomous Left), in an interview with The Clinic magazine.

The right-wing Alianza coalition inherently does not support this platform, but Bachelet has announced her desire to do so. “We dedicated to making adjustments and changes to the model. Some were good, others insufficient,” Bachelet said at her candidacy launch on March 27, referring to her previous term. “We have to carry out more profound reforms,” she said, the first of which she promised would be working toward free public education.

Yet Bachelet governed during the 2006 Revolución Pengüina, when high school students in black-and-white school uniforms mobilized for education reform, alleging that Bachelet had not fulfilled promises made to movement leaders. “Just like the other Concertación coalition governments, she was also responsible for deepening the current model we have,” said Eloísa González, spokesperson for the Coordination Assembly of High School Students. “So evidently we can’t trust even the good intention of her speeches.”

Despite criticism of Bachelet, her party and her coalition, some students have decided to support the candidate, who is likely to win the Concertación’s primary election on June 30.

Juan Cristóbal Hoppe, a 20-year-old journalism student at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, plans to vote for Bachelet in hopes of recovering the once-further-left Socialist Party. “If the will of the people is to truly begin to criticize what [the government] is doing and how they are doing it, as they have done since 2011, the Concertación will become more left,” Hoppe said in a hopeful tone, while his peers socialized nearby in the university courtyard during lunch hour. “A type of real socialism that Allende brought forth, not the socialism that exists today.”

Fabián Araneda, a Libertarian and the vice president of the University of Chile Student Federation, said he observed good intentions in presidential candidates Marcel Claude (Independent) and Roxana Miranda of the Igualdad Party, but it is unlikely they will receive much support. “There still isn’t enough size and organization among the people to back a candidate outside of the two large coalitions,” said Araneda. A law passed in 2012 to make voting optional may present a challenge this year to encouraging young, disillusioned citizens to vote, many of whom may have leaned toward independent or alternative party candidates.

Hoppe said most of his classmates have already decided they will turn out to vote, but will vote null for a presidential candidate. Despite his plans to support Bachelet, Hoppe practices his political ideas through involvement in neighborhood assemblies and a student organization, CRECER, that works closely with labor unions. His hope is to “create a common sense within the left that is different from what the Concertación has today.”

The Embers of a New Left

Another hopeful mini-trend are the several former leaders of the 2011 and 2012 student movement capitalizing on their high approval ratings and the current national discontent to run for Congress. Giorgio Jackson is running for the Chamber of Deputies this year as an independent, although he may run within the Concertación coalition. Additionally, he is supported by the political movement (likely to become a political party) that he helped create to promote a simple and participatory democracy. The Revolución Democrática (Democratic Revolution, or RD) movement focuses on creating a democracy where “rights are guaranteed by society, by the State, while at the same time, maintaining a sustainable development model,” said Jackson.

While the movement’s platform is heavily inspired by left political thought, the word “left” doesn’t appear on its website or, seemingly, in any of its public discourse.

“Today’s Chileans are tired of defining themselves, because they are depoliticized, unfortunately.” Jackson said. “They don’t like to say ‘I’m with the left’ or ‘I’m with the right.” Although Jackson personally defines his political beliefs as left, he doesn’t bring it up unless he is asked.

This new political movement is trying to build itself by presenting ideas that people identify with, and allowing them to define themselves as they see fit. The use of inclusive language allows for a spectrum of citizens who feel unrepresented by current political parties to identify with the RD, from young people who don’t identify with the traditional left parties formed in the twentieth century, to Concertación supporters who feel their politicians have abandoned their parties’ core values.

“We want to form a new majority,” said Jackson. “And that implies having the disposition to work with groups that may think differently, but their central ideas are about seeing transformation and advancements.”

A fairly new political collective, the Izquierda Autónoma (Autonomous Left), was initially formed in 2005, and now includes numerous former and current student movement leaders. Though the collective is more outspoken about its left ideology than the RD, both play significant roles in what is becoming Chile’s “new left” and challenging the binomial system, Chile’s controversial voting process that was created under Pinochet to foster political stability between the Concertación and Alianza political coalitions, but makes it nearly impossible for candidates unassociated with those coalitions to get elected.

Among them, Figueroa intends to run for deputy, and Gabriel Boric, 2012 president of the University of Chile Student Federation, will possibly join him. Both would run as independent candidates, since their collectives are not yet official parties. “For the first time, if we all work together and focus our strength in a few areas, the binominal system can be defeated, or threatened,” he said.

Hoppe is concerned that creating a “new left” means abandoning the ideology of the Socialist Party, and could possibly push the Concertación even more toward the center, causing it to grow as its ideas become more appealing to the right. But Hoppe believes this could be avoided if these newer political movements are able to push the traditional center-left coalition to recover and reclaim some of its parties’ original values. “Not act separately, nor attack them, but rather be critical of the [Concertación] so it becomes more left,” said Hoppe.

Boric thinks this would be a lost cause. “I believe that strategy is incorrect and the idea of making the Concertación ‘more left’ has already proved a failure on multiple occasions and there is no premise that would cause us to think otherwise,” he said.

On the other end of the spectrum, González, the spokesperson for the Coordination Assembly of High School Students, expressed serious doubts that even former student leaders will have any influence as voices for change inside Congress. Their candidacy is symbolic, she said, and “it won’t constitute anything truly effective and concrete for the social and student movements.” González is among many students who are disappointed that the former student movement leaders are beginning political careers instead of continuing as movement leaders. Hoppe agrees with this assessment as well. “I would have loved that instead of running for parliament, Giorgio Jackson would have run [a local] citizen assembly,” he said, explaining that politics are made from working with the people, not from working in Congress.

This may not be the year in which newer social and political movements achieve the organization and consensus required to support a single presidential candidate. Yet despite their differences, it is clear that they are committed to working for change and understand that it is a long process. Araneda pointed out that the last time social movements in Chile organized to support a candidate “of the people,” they elected Allende who was overthrown three years later. “So we need to evaluate strategy a bit,” he said.

For more student activism, read the latest Dispatches from the US Student Movement, featuring sit-ins, walkouts and civil disobedience.

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