Battle lines drawn as protesters seek overhaul of Chile's political system

As candidates for November's presidential election are harassed by demonstrators, frontrunner Michelle Bachelet hopes to secure office through a pact with the Communists

Despite the economic boom, a growing middle class and a near total eradication of severe poverty, candidates for Chile's presidential elections later this year are being stalked by protesters. An irate student spat in the face of the frontrunner, Michelle Bachelet. Eggs launched by angry fishermen missed their target – the rightwing candidate Pablo Longueira – but the message was clear: Chilean politicians beware.

With the election looming in November, the debate over who will succeed President Sebastián Piñera has been eclipsed by a more profound debate: how can any politician manage the simmering discontent? Political attitudes in Chile, like Brazil, seem to follow a similar logic: "throw the bums out". Trust in government institutions is at an all-time low, with the national legislature being singled out for particular disdain.

Bachelet, a former president who left office with approval ratings topping 70%, is an overwhelming favourite to win against rightwing candidate Longueira after last weekend's primary elections confirmed both in November's election.

Attempting to head off a social uprising, Bachelet, a socialist who was most recently executive director of UN Women, has sought to forge a "new majority" that includes the Chilean Communist party. "I am convinced most Chileans want an end to inequality … [the Communists] have decided to support a collective project that seeks to advance towards a more inclusive and fair country," she said.

The Communists' inclusion – they account for between 4-8% of the vote – could be decisive, as recent presidential elections have been decided by margins of under 10%. Bachelet's accord, however, is controversial, as many blame the far left for creating social and economic havoc in the 1970s that led to the bloody coup of General Augusto Pinochet.

"This is total political incoherence," said Longueira. "The Communist party has not changed, what has changed is the Concertación [ruling political coalition]." Longueira characterised the move as a desperate gambit by a dying coalition that he said was "cornered" and now dominated by the extreme left. As a former political prisoner who was tortured and lost her father to the dictatorship, Bachelet has promised that, if elected, she will amend the 1980 constitution – written by a coterie of aides to Pinochet – although exactly how is still unclear.

Several presidential candidates on the left are calling for a "citizen's assembly" to rewrite the constitution. That document, written without public input or debate, is widely regarded as out of date and in need of massive overhaul. However, many politicians see it as a barely disguised path towards Chávez-style, one-party rule. "It is never going to happen and it is a waste of energy," said former finance minster and independent presidential candidate Andrés Velasco, who described the idea as "ridiculous".

Few analysts think that Chileans are likely to embrace that concept en masse, but given the growing enthusiasm for a major political overhaul few ideas are deemed totally impossible. "For 20 years the Concertación consolidated this country like it was a business venture," said independent presidential candidate Marcel Claude, a former environmental activist who is now the darling of the Chilean university lecture circuit.

With his calls for a new constitution and eloquent analysis of Chile's rigid, free-market economic policies, Claude is the only presidential candidate riding the coat-tails of the politically energised student uprising. "What we are attempting to do is build a platform that includes social organisations and parties that don't support the neoliberal system," said Claude. "What we won't do is negotiate with the actual conglomerates, because we don't want to incorporate ourselves into the actual political system."

Though it is Chilean students and their campaign for free university education that has dominated the massive street protests of recent years, Chileans are also organising huge marches for causes ranging from opposition to the Pascua Lama goldmine project in northern Chile to efforts to block hydroelectric projects in Chilean Patagonia.

Even a run-of-the-mill marijuana bust in Chile is now the spark for massive protests. In May, police raided the offices of Manuel Lagos, a music producer in Santiago. They found 600g of marijuana and promptly charged Lagos with drug trafficking, an offence that carries up to a five-year prison sentence. Support groups, Facebook campaigns and free protest concerts erupted. At the most recent rally, 30,000 supporters flooded a public park, declaring "We are all Manuel Lagos" and demanding his release.

Minister condemns youth 'extremists'

Hooded protesters vandalised shops and fought running street battles with riot police in Chile's capital last Wednesday after more than 100,000 joined mostly peaceful demonstrations across the country to demand education reform.

The violence began when masked youths attacked a police station and left burning tyres at road junctions hours before thousands of university and secondary school students marched through central Santiago.

While riot police battled a flurry of rocks and molotov cocktails, students seized an estimated 30 locations scheduled to be official voting sites for last Sunday's presidential primary vote.

"They are not students, they are criminals and extremists," the interior and security minister, Andrés Chadwick, said. "They have acted in a co-ordinated and planned way to provoke these acts of violence." Police arrested 102 people and four officers were injured.

The students were led by Moisés Paredes, a high school leader who held a press conference suggesting the government find an alternative location for the elections, shocking many older Chileans who wondered aloud who was in control.

"We are talking about underage children who by law are not able to vote or buy a pack of cigarettes. Children who need their parents' permission to leave the country … who can't by law even drive a car," wrote Teresa Marinovic, in the influential online newspaper El Mostrador.


Jonathan Franklin in Santiago

The GuardianTramp

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