🔮 The rise of the populist radical right in Chile

Lisa Zanotti and Gonzalo Espinoza-Bianchini explore the rise of the populist radical right in Chile, and its ideological differences from its European counterparts. They also highlight the traditional right's vital role in mitigating the mainstreaming of right-wing populist ideas

Populism in Chile

The populist radical right (PRR) is a global phenomenon. In Europe, PRR ideas are already mainstream, but in Latin America they are still burgeoning. During the 2021 presidential election in Chile, populist radical-right candidate José Antonio Kast secured the majority of first-round votes. However, he was ultimately defeated in the run-off by left-wing candidate Gabriel Boric.

The 7 May election of the Constitutional Council in Chile provided another opportunity to gauge support for the PRR. Chileans selected 50 Constitutional Council members, who will be responsible for drafting a new constitutional proposal ahead of a referendum next December.

This election saw notable success for the PRR Republican Party (Partido Republicano), led by José Antonio Kast. Partido Republicano's success has generated considerable interest in the ideology of the party and its leader.

José Antonio Kast and Republican Party ideology

According to Cas Mudde's definition, the PRR espouses radical (right-wing) policy positions while simultaneously exploiting the tensions in liberal democracy. As a recent study shows, José Antonio Kast and the Partido Republicano are typical proponents, comparable with Spain's VOX, Italy's Lega, or Germany's AfD, among others.

Although they belong to the same party family as their European counterparts, Chilean PRR parties have unique characteristics that we don't commonly see in Europe. European PRR parties typically emphasise nativism through anti-immigration policies. But this is not the primary focus of Kast and the Partido Republicano in Chile. Instead, the core ideology of the Chilean PRR lies in social authoritarianism, reflecting a preference for strict law and order policies.

The core ideology of the Chilean populist radical right lies in social authoritarianism, reflecting a preference for strict law and order policies

Chilean right-wing populism expresses authoritarian ideas in its discourse, and defends traditional moral values. It emphasises that natural societal hierarchies are under increasing threat, and must be protected. It explicitly rejects so-called 'neo-Marxist post-modernism'. This, it claims, is infiltrating Chilean society and exploiting, among other things, human rights, gender, sexual orientation, immigration, and the environment for Marxist interests.

Moreover, neoliberalism and conservatism play significant roles in Partido Republicano ideology. In this way, the party has similarities with the ideology of other Latin American PRR politicians such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Rafael López Aliaga in Peru. This contrasts with Europe, where PRR parties often adopt a welfare chauvinist approach, advocating for a generous welfare state limited to native-born individuals they deem deserving.

It is also important to highlight that many Partido Republicano party members, including executives and activists, adhere strongly to Catholic beliefs or are associated with Opus Dei. One such example is Luis Silva, who received the highest number of votes in the Constitutional Council election, and openly declared Jesus as his role model.

Election to the Constitutional Council

The May 2023 election followed the failure of the 2022 Constitutional Convention. This resulted in an unexpected division within the incumbent left into two factions: Unidad para Chile and Todo por Chile. Simultaneously, the traditional right consolidated itself under the Chile Seguro banner. The PRR Partido Republicano and the Partido de la Gente (PDG), meanwhile, contested the election independently.

The PRR Republican Party secured 23 of 50 seats on the Constitutional Council, which will draft a proposal ahead of a December referendum

This election adopted the senatorial selection system, distributing 50 seats based on regional population using the D'Hondt method. Likewise, the opposition parties agreed to include gender parity with different rules. Unlike the 2022 process, it was implemented at the national level instead of applying gender correction within districts.

Gender overrepresentation was determined based on the votes obtained nationwide, and parity applied to lists with overrepresented candidates. This distribution method was criticised for the discrepancy between the votes initially received by elected candidates and those who ultimately received the position. The most prominent example was right-wing businessman Juan Sutil, who, despite obtaining 13.8% of the votes, had to yield his position to Ivonne Mangelsdorff. She only received 1.7%. Similar situations occurred in four other regions.

In this reshuffling of the Chilean political landscape, the Partido Republicano emerged as the most voted-for party. It secured 23 of the 50 council seats, with 35.48% of the total valid votes. Unidad para Chile garnered 28.45% of the votes, winning 16 seats. Chile Seguro and Todo por Chile obtained 21.14% and 8.97% of the votes respectively, resulting in 11 seats for the traditional right and none for the traditional centre-left. The PDG obtained 5.46% of the votes but failed to secure any seats. Notably, the indigenous population elected one representative, surpassing the threshold with 3.12% of votes.

No straightforward winners

But upon closer examination, the Republican Party may not be the unequivocal winner. Not only that, but, intriguingly, neither a specific party nor any particular candidate emerged as the outright winner.

Unlike the high turnout driven by compulsory voting in the 2022 exit plebiscite – an event associated with a previous failed constitutional process – this particular election saw a voter response of 16.94% null votes and 4.55% with no preference.

39.87% of the electorate rejected all options placed before them, while the broad left obtained its usual vote share

Analysis necessitates prudence. The overall political system took a hit. While more than 80 per cent of the electorate turned out to vote, 21.49% of those voters did not vote for any candidate (null and blank vote). Alarmingly, if we account for non-voters, 39.87% of the electorate opted for none of the political alternatives before them. This figure surpasses votes for the Republican Party and for all other parties.

Despite pessimistic voices and a lack of political calculation, Unidad para Chile, composed of the Broad Front and the Socialist Party, gained 200,000 more votes than Gabriel Boric did in the first round of the 2021 election. If we add to this the votes of the centre-left list, Todos por Chile, the parties of the left combined polled 30.11%. This corresponds with the recurring vote for the left in Chile. Despite the decline of the parties of the former Concertación, left-wing voters seem to have adapted to the new party system.

Limiting the mainstreaming of the populist right

Looking ahead in Chile, we anticipate that the conventional right will play a pivotal role in either enabling or restraining the mainstreaming of radical right-wing populist ideas. In the Constitutional Council, the 11 seats held by conventional right-wing parties are significant.

Such an outlook echoes trends in Europe. The mainstream right could choose to embrace extreme right ideas. Or it could compete on a more moderate platform, constructing transversal agreements, and helping to build a cordon sanitaire against radical-right populist politics.

31 in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Lisa Zanotti Lisa Zanotti Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Institute of Research in Social Sciences (ICSO), Diego Portales University More by this author
photograph of Gonzalo Espinoza-Bianchini Gonzalo Espinoza-Bianchini Associate Researcher, Political-Electoral Observatory, Diego Portales University / Researcher, Millennium Nucleus for the Study of Politics, Public Opinion and Media in Chile More by this author

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