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Socialist governments in Lima and La Paz hope for new ideological ally in Chile. But a new pink tide, this is not.

Left but how left? This is the question perplexing the minds of those running and advising the socialist administrations of Bolivia and Peru as they ponder how Chilean president-elect Gabriel Boric intends to run their longitudinal neighbour. Bearded revolutionaries have a colourful precedent in Latin America, but Mr Boric is likely to be of the more pragmatic kind. Much, however, remains uncertain.

An economist and CFO of a multinational renewable energy company in the capital Santiago remarked, “The future remains uncertain. That uncertainty coupled with Mr Boric’s ambitions will be tempered by the reality of Chile’s economy and measures will be avoided if there is any sense that they could result in key commodities becoming less competitive.”

“[The] uncertainty coupled with Mr Boric’s ambitions will be tempered by the reality of Chile’s economy.”

CFO, multinational energy company, Chile

What we do know is that Mr Boric is young, ambitious and largely inspired by the social democratic politics of continental Europe. He is progressive on matters that stirred Chileans to violent protest in 2019 including tax, gender, sexual equality and the environment. Mr Boric is the change candidate after almost a decade of conservative rule under President Sebastián Piñera, a billionaire businessman whose administration was criticised for pandering to the middle class.

Jitters in the private sector speak to a foreboding sense of populist tax and spend policies on the horizon – the pitfall of many a Latin American economy. Prosperous, neoliberal Chile, highly connected to – and dependent on – global supply chains cannot afford the profligacy of its fiscally irresponsible neighbours. So says industry.

Mr Boric certainly has the political capital to make major systemic changes in Chile but his victory also rode the wave of social discontent. He ignores this at his peril but protestors were rather more moderate in their demands than overly-dramatic headlines at the time alluded to.

There is wide recognition among Chileans, that the prosperity their country has enjoyed – including wages and living standards that lead Latin America – has been the product of measured fiscal policy and high levels of investment in infrastructure. That said, chronic underinvestment in education – something which students have a habit of noticing – poor public healthcare and an outdated pensions system has exacerbated already high levels of income inequality.

Can these areas be meaningfully reformed? A professor at the University of Chile said, “If you look at Mr Boric’s economic plan in detail, there is no doubt he will need to make fundamental changes. But those changes do not mean destroying Chile’s economic model. Mr Boric has limited manoeuvring room, which he knows, because a bigger state will make Chile less attractive for foreign investors. During the campaign, he moderated his stance on tax reform, he will likely moderate his stance on other reforms as well.”

“Mr Boric has limited manoeuvring room, which he knows, because a bigger state will make Chile less attractive for foreign investors.”

Professor, University of Chile

What about foreign policy? Mr Boric is no comrade, he has been vocal in his criticism of the region’s authoritarian regimes – Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. A former Bolivian diplomat said, “Mr Boric is highly unlikely to follow a path of radical foreign policy. He has publicly given his support to the Pacific Alliance whose base is free trade agreements – scorned by leftist governments. Mr Boric has also distanced himself and indeed rejected endorsement from leftist regional leaders including Bolivia’s former president Evo Morales. I think this reflects a pragmatism when it comes to foreign political alliances that is likely to endure throughout his term in office.”

Chileans were never really pushing for a political revolution, more that they want their taxes better spent. It is in this sense then, that Mr Boric whose political appeal was the charismatic embodiment of this sentiment, is best regarded as a pragmatist in contrast to the crowd-pleasing populism of Peru’s Pedro Castillo or Bolivia’s Luis Arce.

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