Chile's Frente Amplio brings new surprises

Following significant electoral gains in both presidential and parliamentary elections in Chile, the Frente Amplio continues to surprise as a new generation of social and political leaders emerges from the movement. Español

Sebastián Vielmas
6 December 2017

Followers of Sebastian Piñera await his arrival in Osorno, Chile on November 9, 2017. Photo: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

This article is part of our series on the 2017 International Civil Society Week, where CIVICUS and the Pacific Islands Association of non-Governmental Organisations (PIANGO) brought civil society members and activists from around the world together to discuss some of the key challenges our planet is facing. You can see more of what came out of the event here.

What a surprise!  Beatriz Sánchez, a journalist and the recently formed Frente Amplio coalition’s presidential candidate received over 20.27% of the popular vote in last months elections. Allejandro Guiller, the nominee from the incumbent President Michelle Machelet’s centre-left coalition Fuerza de la Mayoría (New Majority), just managed to reach the second round with 22.70%. With a slight lead over the Frente Amplio, he will now face former President Sebastián Piñera, of the centre-right coalition “Chile Vamos” (with 36.64%), in the runoff election.

The result was a big shock for the centre-right, who were expecting a stronger first round. Not only was Piñera’s 10-point lead in the polls unfounded, but José Antonio Kast, a candidate from the far-right and known supporter of former dictator Pinochet, also enjoyed some electoral success (7.93%). Yet perhaps the biggest losers on 19th November were the pollsters who, as in many other popular votes around the world, are seeing their credibility vanish.

The Frente Amplio is a great contrast to the fossilised leadership of the country’s traditional political coalitions.

Yet it is the gains made by the Frente Amplio in both the parliamentary and the presidential elections that are of real significance. With their electoral successes (winning 20 deputies out of a possible 150), the coalition now holds the balance of power in the Parliament, together with the regionalist and independence parties. This means that their support will be necessary for the new president, elected from the second round on 17th December, to form a majority in parliament.

The Frente Amplio has promoted a generational renewal across Chilean politics, illustrated by two of their elected candidates having been born after the end of the military dictatorship in 1990, as well as 15 of their 20 deputies being under the age of 40. This is a great contrast to the fossilised leadership of the country’s traditional political coalitions.

Furthermore, their support is intergenerational: a significant percentage of the country’s older population has supported their candidates, without which such electoral success wouldn´t have been possible. Similarly, and in the face of the caricatures that presented the Frente Amplio as elitist, the coalition also found strong support in the popular and middle-class districts, such as Puente Alto and Maipú, and in the Región Metropolitana, where the country’s capital, Santiago, lies.

A new generation, a new consensus

This new generation of leaders has mainly emerged from the recent wave of social movements. One that stands out particularly for its impact throughout society was the movement for the right to education that erupted with force in 2011. Through large public demonstrations, the occupation of educational institutions and strong popular support, this movement put education at the centre of the national agenda. Numerous public policies were implemented as a result of this mobilization – even if the movement was not always satisfied with the outcome.

During that year, I served as General Secretary of the Federation of Students of the Catholic University (FEUC), and as a student leader, I met several leaders from the Frente Amplio. At that time, and in the heat of the mass mobilisations, many of them carried political visions that conflicted with one another. 

We came to understand that the traditional centre-left would not be able to lead the deep transformations away from the neoliberal model that we were proposing.

Yet, those difficult discussions were actually very helpful in making us find common ground around the fundamentals. Without realising it, we collectively built a generational understanding of the failures of a country in which public goods were privatised and social rights were commodified. We came to understand that the traditional centre-left, that of the current President Michelle Bachelet and her presidential cominee Alejandro Guillier, would not be able to lead the deep transformations away from the neoliberal model that we were proposing.

For that reason, it was decided that we would transition from social movements to electoral politics. Thus, the Frente Amplio is now made up of 14 parties and political movements that express a plurality of ideological and organisational visions, politically located to the left of the centre. Some parties, like the Humanist and the Ecologist, have a long activist past. Other members of the coalition, in fact the majority, are much younger and their organisational structures are still under construction.

There are several important points of convergence within the Frente Amplio: all members promote a Constituent Assembly that would replace the current Constitution, drafted during the dictatorship; they seek an understanding of social rights as public goods that must be guaranteed by the State; they claim a close, albeit often conflicting relationship between social movements and political institutions; and they incorporate the themes of gender equality, the environment and a new relationship with indigenous peoples as fundamental parts of the political agenda.

The internal cohesion of the Frente Amplio will be severely tested as the country enters the electoral runoff. Among its leaders and voters there is a tension between those seeking to prevent the victory of the conservative Piñera, by voting for Guillier, and those who oppose the idea of giving a ‘blank check’ to the worn-out traditional centre-left.  Only time will tell whether the coalition can strike this balance between political autonomy, and blocking the return of ex-President Sebastián Piñera.

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