Can This Man Save Chile? | Santino Facal

Millions of Chileans are heading to the polls in a historic election that will change the face of Chile, marking the end of Sebastian Piñera’s era. It is not only the COVID-19 pandemic, already complicating the nominations of candidates and party campaigns, that makes the election special. Indeed, the general election constitutes the dispute of the economic model that has governed the country for the last decades.

By 1973, under the administration of the first elected Marxist president in Latin America, Salvador Allende, the economic collapse of the Andean country was resounding. Chile was going through an unprecedented social crisis manifesting in a great recession, hyperinflation, serious shortage problems with around 50% of the population living in poverty.

After the military coup of 11th September led by Augusto Pinochet, the country made a U-turn in every sense. On the economic sphere, the Chilean Army general carried out profound reforms and placed all his trust in the Chicago Boys: a group of monetarist economists who were educated at the University of Chicago under Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger. Their plan consisted, succinctly, of a free market economy opened to the world, with a small subsidiary State of rigorous fiscal balance. In practice, 500 state-owned companies were privatized, public spending was cut, the import substitution scheme was eliminated, free trade agreements were signed and the central bank became independent. Milton Friedman himself called this event the ‘Miracle of Chile’ despite condemning the military regime. According to Mr. Friedman, ‘the real miracle in Chile was not that those economic reforms worked so well (…) but that that process led to a situation in which you (Chileans) were able to get an election which ended the military junta and now have a democratic government’.

Over the years, already with a consolidated democracy, it seemed that Chile had learned its lesson: things were going well and, even with leaders of the center-left at La Moneda, the economic model was maintained over time. This institutional respect, to which Latin American countries are not accustomed, made Chile the role model for Latino countries. Since the reforms, poverty decreased from 60% to 8% of the population, per capita income increased four times, the country achieved the best HDI and schooling results in Latin America, and the highest upward social mobility index in OECD member countries, among other achievements.

In the words of the Chilean writer Axel Kaiser, ‘human beings function based on narratives that mobilise our emotions, and in the last twenty years a narrative based on inequality has precisely been installed in the Chilean media and academia’. The truth is that the inequality measured in the GINI coefficient was 0.57 in the 90s and today marks 0.47, putting Chile in a more favorable position than countries such as Mexico, Brazil, and Paraguay. But even with indicators that prove otherwise, little by little the detractors of the liberal democracy began to focus on this issue and discredited the most successful system in social, economic, and political terms in the history of the country.

By 2018, with Mr. Piñera being elected for the second time, albeit with a small margin of victory, the government followed the model but did nothing to avoid the growing rejection of its base. Once in power, he stopped responding to his voters and began to respond to the interests of the opposition to remain engaged with their agenda, and depict his government as a moderate centrist alternative willing to concede and agree. This lack of representation, political nous, and conviction explains the emergence of radicalized sectors that united under the aim of rewriting the Constitution at all costs. Putting an end to the model became a national priority for the opposition and so they did it: the ‘Approve’ comfortably won the plebiscite with more than 70% of the votes, and an elected assembly is now in charge of drafting a new Constitution.

Nevertheless, given the aforementioned upcoming election, everything would indicate that neither Piñerism (now represented by Sebastián Sichel) nor the Social Democratic candidates have a chance of winning. Against all odds, the one who is contesting the presidency against the leftist candidate Gabriel Boric is none other than a conservative: José Antonio Kast.

Born in Santiago on January 18th, 1966, Mr. Kast is a lawyer and politician who has served as a deputy and councilor and is currently president of the Republican Party. The son of German immigrants who settled in Chile in 1950, the now presidential candidate comes from a family with a long political tradition in Chile. His brother Michael Kast Rist was Minister of the Planning Office (1978), Minister of Labor (1980), and President of the Central Bank (1982). Mr. Kast’s first steps in politics were with the UDI (Independent Democratic Union), but after twenty years the former deputy made his resignation public and created an independent party. As we have seen in the UK, with Tories disappointed in the decisions of the Conservative party, Mr. Kast felt the same way and considered that the party leadership abandoned its original values. ‘The UDI had to change to get back on track’, he said.

Although he has never held an executive position, this isn’t his first time running for the presidency. The first was in 2017 when he ran as an independent candidate and was ranked fourth out of eight candidates. On that occasion, he obtained more than half a million votes (equivalent to 7.93%), but after the general election, he asked his supporters to vote for Mr. Piñera in an attempt not to split the opposition’s vote. The following year he founded the Republican Action movement, which would later become the Republican Party in 2020. Early this year, Mr. Kast announced he was running under that same party with a similar electoral platform to the one presented in 2017.

What public opinion hadn’t taken into account was that this time he would have considerably more support since Mr. Piñera’s government was not able to cope with the 2019 social outburst. This meant that shortly after starting the campaign, the Republican candidate grew in the polls to the point of leading with peaks of 32% in the most recent ones. The key to this growth was that rather than charging forward to some goal beyond anything Chileans have already known, as Mr. Boric proposes; Mr. Kast is now offering a conservative alternative in the strictest sense of the word. He is aware of the fact that he will inherit something good (a socio-economic order, a political system, a culture, and a legal tradition) and wants to hold on to it, while attending to the deficiencies Chile has developed over the last decades.

As Sir Roger Scruton wisely said, ‘we have a natural desire to conserve the things that we love, the things that we’re adapted to, and the things that we’re used to. And conservatism consists of transcribing that natural desire into a coherent form of politics’. Given the situation in which Chile finds itself, it is easier to be against the system than for it: to be against it you just had to point out its faults and then say you want the alternative, whereas if you’re defending it, you’re in a much more difficult position. It is uncertain whether Chile will be able to overcome this political crisis, as well as whether Chileans are willing to grant their political freedoms for a promising economic future. But one thing is clear, whoever wins will be heir to extraordinary benefits resulting from respect for the institutions, markets, and law. There is no way to avoid the difficult road the Chileans had to follow before they could have both a healthy democracy and economy. Mr. Kast knows what to do. What’s more, he is prepared to do it.

Photo Credit.

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1 Response

  1. Richard Goddard says:

    A genuine conservative. Let’s hope, and so prove, one can WIN again.

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