Chile – defeats, challenges and hopes. Interview with Tomás Hirsch

On Sunday 7 May, elections were held in Chile for the Constitutional Council, which will have to prepare a new draft Constitution, after the previous one, very advanced in many aspects, was rejected in the referendum of September 2022. The new draft constitution will be put to a referendum on 7 December this year.

The Republican Party, a far-right formation led by José Antonio Kast (who had been defeated by Gabriel Boric in the second round of the December 2021 presidential elections) won 35.5 percent of the vote and elected 23 of the 51 members of the Council. The traditional right won 11 seats and Unidad por Chile, the coalition that supports the current government, won 28.4% of the vote and 16 seats. With this result, the right absolutely controls the future Constitutional Council, even having the power to veto proposals that are not to its liking.

To these figures must be added the invalid votes – around 2.1 million, 17% of the total – and the blank votes – 565,000, 4.55% of the total – which seems to indicate the disillusionment of part of the electorate after the great hopes raised by Gabriel Boric’s victory. All this paints a complex and difficult picture for the progressive forces. We talked about this with Tomás Hirsch, Deputy Hirsch, president of Acción Humanista.

What do you think are the reasons for the overwhelming victory of the extreme right?

There is no doubt that the political defeat of the elections for constitutional councilors on 7 May was brutal, and resounding. It is a triumph for the ultra-right that gives it the power of veto and absolute control over the drafting of a proposal for a new constitution. Clearly, it is necessary to evaluate, analyse and understand the reasons for this result and, above all, what the projections are. Before entering into a more profound analysis, I postulate that this result should not make us doubt our project as a government, our programme aimed at generating profound political, economic and social transformations in our country. On the contrary, I believe that now is the time to strengthen the programmatic proposals for which we were elected.

This was a victory for the extreme right-wing party, the Republicans, but we do not believe that Chile has become right-wing; rather, Chile is anguished and in its anguish the responses are changeable, short-term, and immediate, looking for whoever offers the most immediate solution, even if it is totally illusory.

There are several factors to consider in this result. Firstly, the huge number of blank and spoiled ballots, which exceeded 21% of the votes cast, cannot be minimised. Nor can these votes be attributed to misinformation or simple confusion. Such a simplistic explanation does not help to remove it. We believe that this immense volume of blank and spoiled votes is an expression of disaffection: on the one hand, disaffection with our own sector, with the government, with the expectations that people on the left, young people, women, students, workers, environmentalists, animal rights activists and other groups feel have not been met.

But beyond this “anger” or disaffection of our previous voters, coming from the social and left-wing world, it seems to me that there is above all an anger with the whole political system of the new voters: that is, these 6 or 7 million who are now obliged to vote because of the change in the electoral system that introduced compulsory voting. In other words, there are now two universes of voters who do not dialogue with each other. Those who have participated in all previous electoral processes, and those who are doing so for the first time, moved only by the obligation to vote and the threat of a fine if they do not go to the polls. In this second group, there were millions of invalid votes. But it must also be said that the result of those who turned out for the compulsory vote, voting null or supporting the list of the extreme right, showed us that the left and progressives have abandoned their roots and territories, in a process that began in the 90s of the last century.

On the other hand, it is important to understand why people vote for the extreme right, a phenomenon that is happening not only in Chile, but also in many other countries. We believe that this sector has had the ability, or rather the cunning, to connect with immediacy, with people’s strongest, most immediate and atavistic fears: security, crime, migration. That is to say, their high vote is nourished by an easy and facile discourse, which connects with these fears by offering solutions that are easy to grasp, although of course profoundly dehumanising. They, the extreme right, never spoke during the campaign about constitutional proposals as such, but always did so around the current issues that have frightened citizens. In other words, they have a capacity for disguise, for concealment. And they have managed to present themselves as “outsiders”, as those outside the political establishment, and have therefore been able to capture the anger against the so-called “political class”, motivated by the accumulated discrediting of political parties.

Undoubtedly one of the fundamental issues are those mentioned in terms of unmet demands. This has generated a challenge to politics. The unrest of the outbreak of 2019 continues, and this unrest has even grown, and even though it is not organised and structured, it is a contestation, a diffuse but very generalised unrest, and to this are added the anxieties and preoccupations about the current security issues. In our world, as I said, there is a disaffection, a frustration in the face of expectations of transformations that have not taken place or have been slower than expected. Of course, the truth is that we are a minority in Congress, which makes it extremely difficult to make progress on our bills aimed at structural transformations, but that does not lessen the disaffection of part of the population.

The approval of a large mining project in the metropolitan region, which was strongly opposed by the environmental movement, the failure to resolve the huge debts owed by students and young professionals for paid education, the postponement of the discussion on abortion, the signing and enactment of the TPP11, the enactment of laws that give real impunity to the police, known as “trigger-happy” laws, are some examples of what has been generating distance in a percentage of the population.

Despite all the difficulties, do you still see elements of hope?

If we have had this defeat and there are countless difficulties in the attempt to move towards a more humane society, I have no doubt that this change is possible and depends on each one of us. As for the government, I believe and feel that the president must be the leader of hope. And I believe that it is the job of each one of us to contribute to opening up the future to people who feel it is closed. I still remember that old phrase we Humanists used to repeat many years ago: There is still a future! We must be promoters of the opening of the future because we know that sooner or later the best of the Human Being will come through.

We were elected to implement a programme of transformations, for it to make hope a reality. Therefore, we believe that it is fundamental not to give up, to open the future, to educate, not to weaken our project, to remember our vision from humanism, when we say that, in the face of failure, we insist. We insist on our intent and strengthen the proposals that made us the government. Opposing humanity to growing dehumanisation, solidarity to “every man for himself”. Reconnect with our target audience, with those who put their hope, especially in a new generation, to move in the direction of a fairer, more democratic, more participatory, more decentralised Chile, with more rights for all.

We need to activate the deactivated social world, to call on it, to connect with the mistreated people. Of course, we must promote the unity of all political and social sectors, but this convergence cannot be a simple gluing together of political acronyms. It must be unity around a project, around a programme, around the challenges that brought us this far. Nor can it be a unity of elites or political leaders, which today says nothing to the people. It must be joint work with social organisations, helping to strengthen the organisation of the grassroots, recovering the values that once led to social mobilisation.

On the other hand, it is paradoxical and significant that the same week in which we were defeated in the election of constitutional councillors, we obtained two transcendental victories: firstly, we achieved an increase in the minimum wage as never before seen in Chile since the return of democracy, and secondly, the establishment of a mining royalty on copper and lithium which will provide billions of additional dollars each year. From the very beginning of this new law, it has been established that the resources will be widely distributed among the 300 most needy communities in the country, among the poorest mining regions and among the mining communities that are contributing resources to Chile. In other words, with a redistributive and decentralised criterion that is very much in line with the look we have from Humanism. This is a historic transformation, comparable only to the nationalisation of copper in the 1970s. Already in our presidential campaign almost 20 years ago we stated that the mining royalty was a priority for us Humanists. And now it has become a reality.

And in the same week, we passed a new law that will condemn economic and environmental crimes with prison sentences and huge fines. This has been a long-standing aspiration of Humanism, already expressed decades ago in our Orange Book. In addition to this, the law reducing the working week from 45 to 40 hours a week has been passed, allowing workers more time to spend with their loved ones. The next challenge is to achieve a reform of the pension system inherited from the years of the dictatorship, a project that is currently under discussion in Congress.

In other words, beyond the defeat of 7 May, it is clear that we are moving forward with far-reaching changes. And the intention is to continue along this path.

Therefore, the most relevant response that we can give is, on the one hand, to continue moving forward with the reforms that have been committed to, and, politically, to unmask these extreme right-wing sectors that cover themselves with a salvationist discourse in the face of violence and crime, but who in reality want to keep the country in the same conditions in which it has lived until now, generating poverty, inequality and the postponement of rights.

But for us Humanists, the most important task remains that of contributing to the strengthening of the social movement, promoting organisation and nonviolent mobilisation. Our participation in the institutional bodies of government and Congress only makes sense to the extent that we can contribute to strengthening this fundamental factor in the transformation of societies. We have no doubt that the real change will not come from the existing institutions but from a people that organises and mobilises itself in a nonviolent way.

Anna Polo