Chile's student protest leaders hope to dismantle the system from the inside

Camila Vallejo among those expected to elected to congress two years after free education call precipitated nationwide shutdown

Two years ago Giorgio Jackson was at the forefront of Chile's biggest protests since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship, when hundreds of thousands of students took to the streets in support of the right to free university education.

Now the 26-year-old is running for election – one in a group of former student activists hoping to make the leap from the frontlines of street activism to those of congress. Presidential and congressional votes are set for 17 November, and polls suggest Jackson – an independent running under the slogan "Now is the time" – is likely to be elected.

Two other activists, Camila Vallejo and Karol Cariola – both from the Communist Youth party – are expected to be voted in too. "For those of us who fought for such a long time [for education] … it was important to be actors and not spectators," says Jackson.

In a sign of Jackson's growing political force, many of his campaign adverts are directed by the Oscar-nominated Chilean film-maker Pablo Larraín, who directed No, a film dramatising the campaign in 1988 to vote Augusto Pinochet out of office. But Chile's electoral system penalises non-party affiliated candidates so Jackson will have to speak fast: he was allocated just four seconds for his public TV spot.

If elected, the student leaders will be at the forefront of a host of social movements that have rocked the political stage over the past three years. Not only students, but union leaders and environmentalists are seeking political office and a chance to bring new voices to a congress long dominated by traditional party stalwarts and backroom dealings.

Chilean presidential candidates
Chilean presidential candidates take part in a live radio debate in Santiago. Photograph: Ivan Alvarado/Reuters Photograph: Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

Despite a return to democracy in 1990, the electoral laws remain mired in a set of rules established under Pinochet to help the right wing maintain a disproportionate share of power. The dictator was designated "senator for life" and leading members of the armed forces "designated senators", giving both the votes to veto reforms in the senate.

A host of other Pinochet-era election rules continues to distort Chilean democracy and make it difficult for independents or smaller party candidates to be elected. But turmoil and infighting within the right has hobbled the governing Alianza coalition over the past year, opening the way for the return of socialist Michelle Bachelet, Chile's first female president from 2006-2010.

Bachelet, a paediatrician who until recently ran the UN Women programme, is expected to win the presidential race easily and her popularity may help elect a lesser-known progressive candidates throughout Chile. "This new bloc that comes from different social movements could have a common front," says Jackson. "We have a lot of issues that unite us."

Chile posters Michelle Bachelet
Ex-Chilean president and re-election candidate for the socialist coalition, Michelle Bachelet (C) is a crowd holding posters with pictures of victims of Pinochet's dictatorship. Photograph: Felipe Trueba/EPA Photograph: Felipe Trueba/EPA

Vallejo, a former president of the University of Chile student union, says the election to congress of student leaders "will not only demonstrate that the social movements can and should have their own representatives in congress, but also make it possible … to build political spaces that allow us to make the structural changes our society demands".

With her silver nose ring and impassioned references to Karl Marx and Fidel Castro, Vallejo has become a modern Latin American folk hero. In the Chilean capital, Santiago, art galleries sell oil paintings of her while chalked messages of support decorate streets.

Running for office from the working-class Santiago neighbourhood La Florida, Vallejo is focusing her campaign on education reform and an overhaul of the Pinochet-era constitution. Ratified in 1980, the document is widely seen as obsolete and part of what she hopes to change with her "democratic revolution" – a plan she says could be financed by higher corporation taxes and which works within the boundaries of a constitutional democracy.

Vallejo's Communist party membership has long been a target of criticism from Chilean politicians and commentators. But Vallejo's effectiveness as a student leader and activist has earned the 25-year-old political respectability and a Twitter audience of more than 748,000 followers and a growing profile.

But Chilean rightwingers are dismissive of Vallejo and the new political activism.

"This new type of leadership is bad for the country," says Victor Pérez, a senator from the UDI party. "I am sure that the majority of Chileans are going to punish this form of politics, in which the citizen's aspirations are being toyed with and in which social progress is not the objective but simply personal projects."

Jackson says students are fighting to change a style of education imposed by the Pinochet dictatorship and maintained by civilian leaders. Under the military regime entire subjects were outlawed and senior army officers placed in charge of universities.

Even after the return to democracy, Chilean officials looked aside as higher education companies boomed, many of them "diploma mills" more focused on profits than education.

Jackson argues that the students are battling "a legacy of the privatisation of education, an understanding that education is not a right but something that you can purchase".

Vallejo says the Chilean government has long treated education as a commodity that "immediately distorts the principal objective which is to educate not earn profits, as well as generates a brutal socioeconomic segmentation … In other words the children who are born poor are going to receive a poor education and will continue to be poor."


Jonathan Franklin in Santiago

The GuardianTramp

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