This does not, however, mean disregarding the role of traditional politics. Rather, traditional politics matters inasmuch as they connect and reflect with grassroots demands. Working together for a politics that enshrines the right to a ‘life worth living’ requires us to work, as the Zapatistas say, ‘together, but not mixed’.
Proof of this is the solid work that has been done by representatives of these movements to win control of historically conservative mayoralties and councils. The mayoral elections saw one of the most iconic wins for the Communist Party: Santiago City centre, the heart of the metropolitan region, was won for the first time with Irací Hassler as the new mayor. The Frente Amplio – one of the main left-wing alliances – also won 11 mayoralties. This work was also echoed in the regional governors elections. After the second round of elections, which took place on 13 June, the government’s right wing alliance only managed to win one of 16 seats, in the region of the Araucanía.
The recent success of grassroots politicians may also attest to the resilience of Chile’s social movements in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak. Social movements managed to adapt and continue actively fighting the precariousness of life which the pandemic only exacerbated. Whilst the Chilean government’s response to the pandemic has been a mixture of authoritarian measures against social unrest alongside genuine safety measures; communities, neighbours and other collectives have continued building together through collective care.
One of the key forms of community support has been the organisation soup kitchens – or ollas communes – which have a long history in Chilean grassroots organising, first emerging during the 1980s in the poorest neighbours hit by the economic crisis. These ollas comunes have been brought back throughout the country to help thousands of families abandoned to poverty due to the Coronavirus crisis and its economic impact.
The potential to transform politics
Last Sunday 16 May, the election of a large number of independent delegates from the grassroots for the constituent assembly – including indigenous people, feminists, ex-student leaders and leaders from other social movements – showed the potential of popular democracy to transform politics. None of the independent delegates have affiliation to political parties. While the traditional political class suffers a self-inflicted crisis of legitimacy, this represents a wider victory of social movements and activists to intervene in the constituent process.
Of course this movement was not built in two months, or in two years. It has been built gradually and steadily with the increase of on-the-ground organisation and public discontent with a system that is not working for most people in Chile. As many said after October 2019, it was not about a 30 pesos raise of the metro fare, it was 30 years of ‘democratic’ neoliberalism.
How popular democracy will continue to nurture alternative forms of political power whilst fighting and negotiating for a new constitution remains an open question. But it offers hope for new political horizons that could make Chile not just the country where neoliberalism was born, but where it will die.