Chile’s post-transition generation: mastering the streets and distrusting the ballot box

BY Nicolás M. Somma

Contemporary Chile provides a fascinating setting for studying youth politics. As I write these lines on a Friday evening, hundreds of young people are protesting around metro stations in Santiago – Chile’s capital – and all across the country. This is just one snapshot of the so-called “Chilean Spring” (Somma et al. 2020), the gravest sociopolitical crisis in Chile in the last four decades. Since its start last October, this contentious episode combines massive peaceful protests, violent riots, police repression, and states of siege. Add to this an erratic government with the lowest presidential approval in decades (6%) and a widely delegitimated political class – from right to left – which is routinely intimidated by angry mobs and pontifying twitterers.

Sadly, the Chilean Spring has brought dozens of deaths and unmeasurable pain and destruction in one of the – until now – most stable Latin American countries. But it has also brought winds of change. It led most political parties to start a process for eventually replacing Chile’s Constitution, forged in 1980 during General Pinochet’s dictatorship – although amended several times during democracy. A national plebiscite scheduled for April 26th, 2020, will allow the citizenry to approve or reject the plan of having a new constitution. If the “approve” option wins, Chile will have its first constitution ever written in democracy.

The Chilean youth has been a significant force behind these changes. While people from all ages protested since the crisis erupted last October, the youth did so at higher rates than the older people. High-school students began the outburst when they staged massive evasions in Santiago’s metro stations. The youth has also nurtured the massive peaceful demonstrations taking place recurrently since October. This includes the October 25th’s demonstration, possibly the largest demonstration ever in Chile, with an estimated attendance of 1.2 million people (close to 7% of the national population). Some evidence suggests that people under 30 years old compose most of the “first-line” protestors, who fight against the police during demonstrations. Without youth collective action, the prospects for political change in Chile would be very different.

Of course, almost everywhere, the young protest more than older people (Dubrow et al. 2008; Schussman and Soule 2005). And, in general, older people vote more than the youth (Dassonneville 2017). But in Chile, this “political division of labor” across age groups is more marked than in other countries (Bargsted et al. 2019, PNUD 2017). Why? I believe part of the answer has to do with generational differences between those born in Chile after 1990, or the “post-transition generation” – in 1990 democracy was restored in Chile – and older generations.

Let me advance a daunting speculation: the post-transition generation – now 30 years old or less – protests more than older generations not only because of their higher “biographical availability” (McAdam 1986) or their life cycle stage (Nicolayenko 2008), but also due to generational differences. Older generations, raised in or having spent many years under dictatorship (from 1973 to 1990 in Chile), faced major costs when protesting against the repressive dictatorship of Pinochet. For them, the opportunity to vote in the 1988 plebiscite and the ensuing democratic restoration was an epic moment and a major political triumph (Toro 2008). They conceived collective protest as a required strategy for mounting pressure against the dictator, but a second-best strategy once democracy was achieved – far below the ballot box. Indeed, the parties that led the mobilizations against Pinochet during the 1980s, and came to power in 1990 under the Concertación center-left coalition, feared that massive mobilizations would induce an authoritarian reversal. Therefore, they tried to avert them (Roberts 1998).

The post-transition generation conceives collective action differently. Today’s Chilean coercive forces have obsolete and often brutal and indiscriminate repressive practices – as it became too evident during the actual crisis. Yet they are not terrorist machines as they were during Pinochet’s times. The post-transition generation has more freedom to protest, less fear about it, and does not associate protesting with putting democracy at risk. Also, they are better equipped for protest than older generations. Like their counterparts in other countries, the post-transition generation has taken advantage of the internet and its diverse affordances for coordinating and staging mobilizations (Valenzuela et al. 2012). They have benefited like no other generation from the most rapid expansion of upper education in Chile’s history (Torche 2005). This granted them considerable cognitive skills (Dalton 2000), as well as mobilization structures in college campuses and other tertiary institutions that can be used to coordinate collective action (McCarthy 1996).

Given these conditions, it is no wonder that a movement mostly composed by the youth, such as the student movement, arouse since the mid-2000s as the central movement in Chile’s social movement sector (McCarthy and Zald 1977). Other things being equal, student demonstrations carry more people to the streets compared to other movements (Somma and Medel 2019). Student protests have mobilized the largest number of people along with labor protests, and students are central nodes in protest networks, as revealed by analyses of protest event data (Somma and Medel forthcoming). Moreover, the student movement had a significant impact in setting the agenda of the last three presidential administrations in Chile. It not only pressed successfully for important reforms in the educational system, but also in other areas such as constitutional reform and tax reform (Donoso and Somma 2019). Student leaders were key engineers of the anti-neoliberalism master frame that now permeates much of Chilean civil society and stands in tension with the existing model of socio-economic development.

While good at staging protests and influencing the government, the post-transition generation has been less capable than older generations to transform collective action into coherent political forces. The parents of the post-transition generation had a clear purpose – toppling the dictator. They accumulated forces under charismatic leaders from reemerging center and leftist parties, who managed to unify the actions of labor, student, and homeless organizations. But the post-transition generation has not reached a comparable degree of unity and purpose. By definition, student leaders are in constant renovation – older leaders graduate and abandon the movement. This prevents the formation of durable and revered leaderships, which are possible in other social movements. Also, while in the U. S. many student activists of the 1960s continued their activist careers in other movements (McAdam 1990), in Chile the most notorious student leaders took a different path and got involved in traditional political parties – like the Socialist or Communist parties – or new political coalitions – like the Frente Amplio (Broad Front), a leftist coalition founded in 2016 by former student leaders.

The Frente Amplio was tremendously successful in its debut in national elections in 2017, achieving 20% of the first-round vote and many congressional representatives. But since then, it has been experiencing bitter fights among its leaders and internal divisions which led to secessions of many organizations from the coalition. This has undermined its capacity to create strong links with organized civil society, especially the youth. While an age-period-cohort study suggests a surprising increase in voter turnout among the younger generations (Bargsted et al. 2019), there remains a large mass of post-transition young people, disaffected with the political status quo, and routinely engaged in collective protest. No political party has been able to attract them so far.

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