Once Flying High, Chile’s Boric Falls to Earth

Realizing the need to make adjustments, Boric has shifted towards the center in his selection of ministers and trimmed his legislative priorities, but it increasingly looks like he has missed his moment.


Image Source: AP.

For the last two years Chile has been governed by unabashedly leftist President Gabriel Boric after over three decades of alternating center-left and center-right rule. But halfway through his four-year term, Boric’s popularity is low, the bulk of his program is unrealized, and absent a major shift in Chile’s political dynamic, he seems likely to stagger through to the end, his dreams of radical change frustrated. Realizing the need to make adjustments, Boric has shifted towards the center in his selection of ministers and trimmed his legislative priorities, but it increasingly looks like he has missed his moment.

Chile Wants Change—Or Not

Boric can be forgiven for thinking at the beginning of his term that Chileans wanted radical change. He had come to prominence first as a student leader, then as a member of Congress for a small leftist party. In the aftermath of Chile’s months-long “social explosion” of protests, he played a major role in negotiations which led to the formation of a convention to rewrite Chile’s constitution. The convention’s membership, voted upon during the waning days in office of center-right President Sebastian Piñera, was dominated by far-left figures. 

The same momentum then carried Boric to the presidency, heading a coalition of “new leftist” political parties which stressed environmental protection, minority rights, and social justice, together with the old school Chilean Communist Party. But there was always less than met the eye in Boric’s victory, as he had been brought to power by a tide of popular emotion which inevitably could not be sustained. He had also benefited from the fact that the demoralized center-left and center-right parties had nominated second-tier figures even as a new hard right force, the Republican Party, emerged. 

To the surprise of many, the second round of the presidential race consisted of Boric’s leftist coalition versus Republican leader José Antonio Kast, a figure whose hardcore social conservatism and noted affection for the Pinochet era rendered him unpalatable to many Chileans. However, Boric came to office without a majority in Congress. In the Chamber of Deputies his supporters could only cobble together a majority by reaching out to the same center-left parties they had sought to supplant, while the Senate was evenly divided between leftist and rightist forces.

Once in office Boric strongly supported the work of the ongoing constitutional convention, which looked to rewrite Chile’s political order to definitively set it on the course of the “transformations” on which he had campaigned. However, the convention, consisting largely of academics and civil society activists (with few members having genuine political experience) proved to be both extremist and inclined to performative gestures of contempt for the status quo. Its final document, heavy on minority and environmental rights and restraints on the private sector, was resoundingly rejected in a nationwide referendum, leaving Boric himself wounded politically. 

A second constitutional convention was then called. But this time Chileans picked a membership which was dominated by conservatives, with Kast’s Republicans the single largest force. Ironically it too produced an extreme document, this time on the right, most notably including language calling into question the right to abortion — resulting in yet another referendum rejection. But while Boric’s leftist coalition may have hoped that this would cancel out the damage done by the first failed convention, the real beneficiaries of the two defeated constitutional efforts may have been Chile’s centrist forces with the country seemingly rejecting both the far left and right. Even as Boric’s polling remains low, Kast’s popularity has declined while the public seems more interested in traditional figures such as Evelyn Matthei, mayor of a Santiago suburb, and former President Michelle Bachelet.

Some Big Stumbles

Boric’s government was also damaged by a series of self-inflicted wounds. His staff and cabinet were in many cases drawn from his former comrades in the student and NGO worlds with relatively little executive or legislative experience. A condescending tone towards the center-left prevailed consigning them to the outer rings of power even as their votes in Congress were sought.  And, of course, the Communist Party, anathema to many Chileans, also had a prominent role in the coalition.

A major scandal also did damage when it was revealed that NGOs established by figures close to the governing parties had received no-bid contracts to provide social services or public relations campaigns for regional governments.

While Chilean public life is relatively clean by Latin American standards, scandals were hardly unknown under other administrations, including those of the previous two presidents. Nonetheless, this one hit Boric hard, as he had campaigned against business as usual, and indeed one senior official had even proclaimed that the new administration represented “a different scale of values” from that of previous generations. (This official in fact had to resign as a result of the scandal.)

Corruption concerns aside, Boric’s administration has been weak on execution, and he has seemed to lack the political staff which could anticipate problems and avoid self-inflicted wounds. A case in point was his attempt to fulfill a campaign promise to grant compensation to individuals injured by the police response to the “social explosion.” While this decision would inevitably have been opposed by the right, it was important to his base, and probably could have been implemented without too much controversy. However, when it was found that many who had received lifetime pensions had engaged in acts of violence, trafficked drugs, or committed other serious crimes, Boric suffered major embarrassment and had to backtrack.

Tacking to the Center

Boric, who is not without a sense of self-preservation, has engaged in some important course correction. Over a series of cabinet shifts he has incorporated into his government more experienced figures, many from the previous center-left administration of Michelle Bachelet, most notably at the powerful Interior Ministry.  Despite difficulties, a working relationship has been established with the center-left bloc in Congress. Boric has made repeated efforts to walk back the harsh anti-establishment rhetoric of his campaign, and has pared down his legislative goals to reforms on taxes, health care and pensions.

But making progress in these areas will be difficult. Although his finance minister is a well-regarded social democrat, a tax reform aimed at raising revenue will have tough sledding in the face of a sluggish economy, even as conservatives try to shift the debate towards finding ways to improve Chile’s investment climate. While there are real problems in Chilean health care, aggravated by the fact that its privatized system has faced issues in the courts for overcharging, there is considerable suspicion that the administration’s ultimate desire is to create a British-style universal national health service which could entail offloading patients onto the creaky public system which already exists for lower income Chileans. 

And Chile’s privatized pension system, which serves individuals with steady jobs quite well, but does much worse for those with interrupted work histories, has both strong defenders and detractors and replacing it, even partially, with a state-operated system will be a hard sell, given his lack of a congressional majority.  In any event, Chileans seem to be of two minds regarding pension reform.  On one hand they are unhappy with the limits of the present system.  On the other they feel that if new resources are injected into the system via a greater employer contribution, they want it to go into employees’ individual accounts, rather than for any redistribution to lower income persons. But for all of these, if Boric is to have any hope of passing legislation, he will have to make painful compromises which will leave much of current regimes intact. And in doing so he will face pressure from within his coalition, where already one deputy has complained that the “battle of ideas” is not being joined.

As these debates go on, another issue has risen to the top — that of insecurity, whether it be from street crime, from low grade terrorism committed by radical indigenous groups in southern Chile, or perhaps most disturbingly, from the ever greater presence of international drug cartels. The subject is uncomfortable for Boric’s leftist coalition, which rose to power in part by stressing police brutality during the social explosion. He has tried to get on top of the issue, accepting legislation which strengthens the immunities which police enjoy in their official duties, and even showing some openness to deploying the military to protect infrastructure. But the political reality is that he can always be outbid by the right in responding to security concerns. 

The Next Two Years

Although Boric is bogged down right now he has some strengths. His youthful, informal personality is a plus in a country where many politicians are tired, recycled veterans.  His commitment to democratic processes has set him apart from many leftist leaders in Latin America. And the issues of inequality and an inadequate social safety net which animate him remain relevant.  He has some modest achievements in those areas such as a minimum wage increase and the long overdue creation of a 40-hour workweek, although one may ask if this is any more than what a center-left government could have achieved.

Can he catch a second wind? The next test will be Chile’s municipal elections, scheduled for October. If they are viewed as a referendum on Boric’s administration, he will be in trouble as his popularity oscillates between 27 and 35 percent. But if his coalition survives relatively unscathed it may provide him with sufficient momentum to get at least some of his legislative program, however modified, through Congress. But a poor result would likely shift him into caretaker mode. In any event, his vast transformations will have to wait for another day, if ever.

Richard M. Sanders is Senior Fellow, Western Hemisphere at the Center for the National Interest.  He is also a Global Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. A former member of the Senior Foreign Service of the Department of State, his assignments included service at the U.S. Embassy in Chile, 1991-94 and as Director of the Office of Brazilian and Southern Cone Affairs, 2010-13.

More Commentary

Scroll to Top