When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

Toppling the old guard: Josefa Errázuriz
Toppling the old guard: Josefa Errázuriz
Antonio Skármeta*

-Essay-

SANTIAGO – As recent nationwide municipal elections proved once again, there’s never a shortage of surprises when it comes to politics in my country.

The elections were a real blow to the rightist government of President Sebastián Piñera, a businessman who three years ago displaced the center-left Concertacion coalition that had led Chile since the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship ended in 1989.

The Concertacion’s last president was Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010), who finished her term with an approval rating of over 80%. Because of Chile’s electoral laws – which prohibit presidents from serving consecutive terms – she could not seek immediate reelection. The man who did represent the coalition for the 2009 election, Eduardo Frei, was unable to benefit from the outgoing president’s popularity. He lost to the conservative Piñera, who promised voters “a new way of governing.”

Since taking office, however, Piñera has seen his popularity plummet. He now has an approval rating of about 30%. The municipal elections could have been a chance for him to turn things around, to give the political right some momentum for next year’s presidential contest. Piñera’s center-right coalition could certainly use some. Polls consistently show ex-President Bachelet winning the next race easily – assuming she is willing to run, which would mean giving up her important post in New York as Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women.

Instead, the municipal elections went the other way, thanks in large part to recent union and student-led social movements, which energized the opposition. The left earned emblematic mayoral wins in three key Santiago boroughs: Santiago Center, Ñuñoa and, last but not least, Providencia. In all three cases, the winners were women.

Remnants of the Pinochet era

Providencia had been run for years by Mayor Cristián Labbé. While he may not be Chile’s only remaining pinochetista, Labbé is certainly the deceased dictator’s most blustering, arbitrary and aggressive defender. He boasts about having served under the dictatorship and says he has no regrets about participating in Pinochet’s repressive secret police force, which committed countless human rights violations.

As the “boss” of an upscale borough whose residents tend to be both comfortable and conservative, Labbé felt happy and secure about his “management” style. He humiliated and repressed Providencia’s student protestors, even expelling some from their schools. He sang Pinochet’s praises every time someone put a camera or a microphone in front of him. He even went to the extreme of participating in a tribute to some of his brothers in arms who are currently serving time in a high security prison because of crimes they committed during the dictatorship.

After all of his past electoral success, Labbé could never have imagined his career would be in trouble, especially when the traditional center-left political parties that could have challenged him are faring so poorly in the polls. This time, though, the parties were gracious enough to step aside and allow the mayor’s local opponents to select an independent candidate: Josefa Errázuriz. Labbé pompously dismissed his challenger’s chances. Laughing, he told reporters there was no way he could lose to a simple “housewife.”

And yet for decades, Chile’s “simple housewives” are precisely the ones who have nurtured the country’s democracy and served as its backbone. Labbé’s chauvinism prevented him from evolving in the way many others on the right have. By making fun of these women, he also offended their husbands and children. Mrs. Errázuriz ended up drawing support from both women and men, and from all social classes. She energized young people, who saw her race against Labbé as a cause really worth fighting for. It was the kind of rallying point the left has been missing since the plebiscite of 1988, which paved the way for the end of the Pinochet dictatorship.

The three women who achieved the impossible in Santiago, Ñuñoa and Providencia all have immense talent. But they also have something else in common, something that has not been mentioned in most of the cold political analyses put forth since the elections. Josefina Errázuriz dethroned the last residue of Pinochet’s arrogance; the winner in Ñuñoa, Maya Fernández, is the granddaughter of martyred President Salvador Allende (1970-1973), who was toppled in the 1973 coup that preceded Pinochet’s 17-year regime; and the mayor-elect in Santiago Center is the daughter or José Tohá, a cabinet minister under Allende. Tohá was tortured to death by fascist soldiers.

And then there’s Bachelet, the former and possibly future president whose father, a pro-democracy Air Force general, was also killed in the aftermath of the coup. Together the triumphs of these women suggest that the sacrifices of the last generation weren’t in vain. Thanks to the power of collective memory, the population has dealt the country a new hand.

And what a hand it is: four of a kind, Queens.

*Antonio Skármeta is a Chilean novelist best known for his book Ardiente Paciencia (Ardent Patience), which inspired the Academy Award-winning film Il Postino (The Postman).

You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Economy

Europe's Winter Energy Crisis Has Already Begun

in the face of Russia's stranglehold over supplies, the European Commission has proposed support packages and price caps. But across Europe, fears about the cost of living are spreading – and with it, doubts about support for Ukraine.

Protesters on Thursday in the German state of Thuringia carried Russian flags and signs: 'First our country! Life must be affordable.'

Martin Schutt/dpa via ZUMA
Stefanie Bolzen, Philipp Fritz, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister, Mandoline Rutkowski, Stefan Schocher, Claus, Christian Malzahn and Nikolaus Doll

-Analysis-

In her State of the Union address on September 14, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, issued an urgent appeal for solidarity between EU member states in tackling the energy crisis, and towards Ukraine. Von der Leyen need only look out her window to see that tensions are growing in capital cities across Europe due to the sharp rise in energy prices.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

Sign up to our free daily newsletter.

In the Czech Republic, people are already taking to the streets, while opposition politicians elsewhere are looking to score points — and some countries' support for Ukraine may start to buckle.

With winter approaching, Europe is facing a true test of both its mettle, and imagination.

Keep reading...Show less

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in
Writing contest - My pandemic story
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS

Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

Watch VideoShow less
MOST READ