What can movements expect from engaging in electoral politics? The relationship between the current government of President Michelle Bachelet and the Chilean college student movement suggests that supporting a candidate and her platform can come at a price. The reforms advanced by Bachelet have left students dissatisfied, and the movement itself has lost leverage.
In 2011, Chilean secondary and college students staged the largest demonstrations since the country’s return to democracy. In the case of college students, these protests aimed to change the Chilean higher education system’s funding scheme. In 1981, the military regime reformed higher education so institutions had to finance themselves, and students had to fund their studies. Thirty years later, students mobilized for “public, free, and quality education.”
The student movement clearly had a political impact. First, certain student sectors and the Communist Party (which played an important role in the protests) were incorporated into the new Nueva Mayoría government coalition. Former student leaders joined the government in, for example, the Education and General Secretariat of Government Ministries, having a direct role in the education reform and in interacting with social organizations. Second, several student leaders were elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 2014, with and without government support. The consequence, therefore, is that the mobilization helped to open up both the executive and Congress to new, post-democratic transition actors.
However, the policy consequences have been less remarkable. When Bachelet presented her government platform, she adopted students’ demands promising, among other things, to achieve free college education within six years. The education reform, which includes major changes to all education levels, is part of an ambitious plan to carry out significant policy changes in the education, tax, labor, and constitutional realms. The administration has spent much political capital in the education reform, and the incorporation of former student leaders into the government was meant to ensure that student voices would be heard in the reforms.
The government has fallen short of its promises in higher education. Free tuition has been granted to the five poorest income deciles attending eligible higher education institutions in 2016. The change was carried out through a short-term modification instead of a permanent legislative change, and has caused much conflict between officials and student leaders, and between the latter and their student bases. In turn, the government’s proposal to reform the higher education system has met widespread criticism from all sectors. Students have argued that some of their main demands have not been included, and that the ones included have been watered down.
Meanwhile, students’ capacity to pressure through protest has taken a hit. The calls for mobilizations against the government have been less effective than in the recent past. Although students deemed this year’s first demonstration on June 9 a success, subsequent mobilizations have been smaller. Recent protests have made more headlines due to their level of violence than their ability to convene large number of demonstrators. Public opinion polls also reflect the diminished stance of the student movement: whereas in November of 2014 50 percent of Chileans thought education was an important issue, only 36 percent thought the same in August of 2016. The generations who led the 2011 mobilizations have for the most part left or graduated, and the college student movement has not been renewed.
The uncertain outcome of the higher education reforms can be associated to the hard situation faced by Bachelet and her government. Although an unfavorable economic climate, with a drop in the price and exports of commodities, has definitely reduced Bachelet’s leverage, much of the administration’s approval issues can be traced to a series of corruption scandals involving her son but also much of the political spectrum. Disapproval of the government has been translated into disapproval of the government’s policies: when asked to grade the government’s education reform 56 percent of Chileans give it a failing score.
In turn, the apparent demobilization of the Chilean student movement cannot be understood separately from the linkages made with the Bachelet administration during the presidential election. Students (and the social sector in general) have already broken ties with the government – previous student leaders have resigned from the Education Ministry to form a new political party together with Deputy (and former student leader) Giorgio Jackson – but this alliance has already had a negative effect on mobilization. For example, secondary students (noted for being more radical than their college counterparts) have accused the government of coopting the movement, demobilizing sectors closer to the ruling parties.
It may also be that student mobilization has become a victim of its own success. The 2011 protests were particularly successful at mobilizing students from lower income families, and those attending private institutions – the most affected by the market orientation of the funding system. In 2016, those same students have gained access to free funding. Now, therefore, students who mobilize in ways that disrupt the academic cycle (e.g., occupying schools, strikes) risk losing a semester or a year of public funding, which did not happen five years ago. Thus, financial grievances are less compelling, leaving only the most motivated students to protest against the reforms.
What can be learned from the relationship between the Chilean student movement and the education reform? First, once social demands enter the institutional arena, they become independent from the social movements that articulated them. The government’s weakness associated to corruption scandals has had a negative impact on the education reform. Second, ties with government can demobilize social actors. Keeping one foot on the streets and one in the government hallways can be extremely difficult, and the two actions may become mutually exclusive. Third, reforms themselves can have a demobilizing effect. The education reform has had a partial, temporary success as of yet but it has nevertheless given reasons for some students not to push for further changes.