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Chile’s Student Leaders Compete in Parliamentary Elections

Those on the frontlines of Chile’s student protests are now seeking to affect change from within the establishment.
Candidates Karol Cariola and Camila Vallejo sing with Mireya Balta, who served in Parliament alongside activist Gladys Marin. Photo and homepage photo: Peter D'Amato

Chile’s political establishment may be welcoming a new class in November when the country holds presidential and parliamentary elections. Former President Michelle Bachelet is expected to easily win the presidency, but some former leaders from Chile's student movement are looking to shake up the national Congress. As they compete for seats in the Chamber of Deputies, they will be looking to take their first step into electoral politics.

Among those running is Camila Vallejo, who was president of the Federación de Estudiantes de la Universidad de Chile, the university federation known as FECH, during the height of the protests in 2011. Rising from the tear gas-filled streets of Santiago to become an international icon for the universal right to education, Vallejo was praised for her willingness to take on Chile’s political elite.

Vallejo is campaigning to become a Deputy in La Florida, a Santiago comuna (municipality) tucked away in the southeast corner of the city. Running as a member of the Partido Comunista de Chile (Communist Party of Chile), the political maneuvering of her campaign has turned some moderate Chileans into skeptics.

A militant since her early years in university, Vallejo was never going to enter politics except as a member of the Communist Party. But some of the compromises she has made with the Nueva Mayoría (New Majority), the political coalition behind Bachelet, have disappointed supporters from the student movement.

As president in 2006, Bachelet had supported some reforms to Chile's education system after the Penguin Revolution, when secondary-school students organized protests of the Ley Orgánica Constitucional de Educación (Organic Constitutional Law on Education—LOCE), a Pinochet-era law still being applied to education. But implementation dragged on indefinitely, creating a rift between students and the administration.

Bachelet has now promised that the current movement’s central demand—free, quality education—could be achieved in five or six years. But remembering her inability to pursue less drastic reforms in 2006, many student leaders doubt her commitment.

Spanish newspaper El País quoted Vallejo in January 2012 as saying: “I would never be disposed to campaign for Bachelet or call the youth to vote for her.”

So when the Communist Party announced on May 26, 2013, that it would be supporting Bachelet’s presidential candidacy, Vallejo was put in the difficult position of campaigning for the student movement’s former adversary.

Other student leaders from the Communist Party have integrated into the Nueva Mayoría with equally surprising speed. Camilo Ballesteros, who in 2011 was president of FEUSACH, the student federation at the Universidad de Santiago de Chile, became the youth coordinator for Bachelet this year.

In June, Vallejo and Ballesteros joined Karol Cariola, general secretary for the Communist Youth and a parliamentary candidate, to post a YouTube video explicitly calling on youth to vote for Bachelet. This marked the definitive end to their wariness in supporting Bachelet.

Vallejo’s electoral campaign has tended toward the traditional, in contrast to the raucous creativity and disruption of the student movement. At the launch of her campaign, Vallejo was serenaded by folk singers in a packed community center in La Florida, seated with former Senator Mireya Baltra, who served in Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) administration, and Communist Party President Guillermo Tellier.

Speaking at the end of the event, Vallejo called for unity on the Left.  Her only critique was of the Concertación—as the Nueva Mayoría was known before the inclusion of the Communist Party—and its “politics of compromise,” which Vallejo said gave away too much to the Right.

Outside the major political coalitions, student leaders are finding that the price of idealism is high. Giorgio Jackson, who in 2011 was the leader of FEUC, the student federation at the Universidad Católica de Chile, will be running with his own party, Revolución Democrática (Democratic Revolution).

Competing against both Nueva Mayoría and Alianza candidates in Santiago Centro, Jackson needs to win higher total votes than one of the competing coalitions due to an electoral system (known as the binominal) that distributes seats to winning coalitions, not candidates. Though he lacks major party support, Jackson has announced a goal of “33.4 percent of the vote,” a percentage that would guarantee at least second place in the election and one of the two Deputy seats.

“If anyone can do it, Giorgio can,” says Paul Floor, a Communist Youth militant assisting with Vallejo’s campaign. In spite of Vallejo's international fame, Jackson emerged from 2011 with the highest approval rating among the other student leaders, according to Chilean polling company Adimark.

Jackson’s party is itself a product of the student movement. Co-founder Miguel Crispi also started Nueva Acción Universitaria (New University Action—NAU), the party that has controlled the presidency of FEUC since 2009. Focused as much on social reform as on student mobilization, NAU established social programs such as the Center for Students and Workers, where students provide free classes for workers and their families.

Like Democratic Revolution, Izquierda Autónoma (Autonomous Left) began in the university. A Marxist-leaning movement represented in the student federations of a handful of universities, the autonomistas have proposed three former student leaders to run for Deputy seats: Daniela López, who was president of the student federation of Universidad Central in 2012; Francisco Figueroa, who was FECH vice president in 2011; and Gabriel Boric, who defeated Camila Vallejo for the presidency of FECH in 2012.

Figueroa admits that the party has a slim chance at the polls. “We’re going into these elections, of course, to win, but with a view fixed on the mid- and long term,” he says. But he hopes that after the elections “there will be better conditions than there are now to construct a new political project in this country. Creating an institutional space is a necessary step.”

“In general, all these groups reject the idea of the traditional party, but they don’t necessarily reject the idea of the party,” says historian Mario Garcés, who has written about the relationship between the student movement and other Latin American social movements. “[They find] it’s necessary to recreate a notion of politics that’s capable of taking civil society more seriously into account.”

This hybrid of representative and participatory democracy is the preferred option for Moisés Paredes, spokesperson for the Coordinadora Nacional Estudiantes Secundarios (CoNES), a federation of secondary school students in Chile. Paredes says politicians “believe that democracy is an exercise you do every four years with a vote and later, ‘Ciao, I don’t listen to you’.”

The Asamblea Coordinadora de Estudiantes Secundarios (ACES), the other coordinating body for secondary school students in Chile, boycotted last year’s municipal elections—a move that Paredes denounced. “It’s necessary to go and vote in the elections and to mobilize,” he says. “They’re different fronts in the same battle for the same objective.”

In spite of the divides, there is strong solidarity among the former leaders. Figueroa attended the launch of Vallejo’s campaign in July, while Vallejo and Cariola are publicly endorsing Jackson in his candidacy.

The question of whether any former student leaders can break into politics will be answered this November. But those who make it will likely have each other’s support as they seek to push through education reforms and other progressive programs in Chile.

To view a slideshow by the author on Chile's upcoming election, click here.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Chile, Chile Presidential Elections, Chile student protests, Camila Vallejo