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Few Chileans have a voice in government. That’s why so many are in the streets.

A small, wealthy class runs both major political parties — and the government.

- November 5, 2019

Since Oct. 8, Chileans have been protesting in the streets — sometimes peacefully, sometimes furiously. The government responded with curfews and military force; at least 20 people are dead, hundreds injured and more than 4,000 detained. Set off in Santiago by a transit fare increase, the demonstrations have quickly expanded to six cities, protesting the cost of living and extreme inequality more broadly.

The protests’ violence and rapid spread have surprised most observers, as has the fact that they didn’t abate when President Sebastián Piñera canceled the fare hike, raised both the minimum wage and taxes on the wealthy, and replaced his cabinet. Now protests are not only directed at government but also at the political elite. Scholars and journalists have primarily pointed to Chile’s income inequality, which ranks among the highest in the 34-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

But that explanation ignores Chile’s other structural inequalities.

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Chile’s main political parties are dominated by the top socioeconomic strata

My research shows that inequalities in Chile go beyond income and include access to political power and public office. Most elected representatives come from a closed and small elite who are living in a far more privileged reality than the rest of the country. This gap is well documented. A U.N. Development Program report in 2017 showed inequalities in almost every aspect of public life, including access to health care and such services as pharmacies, police provisions and public transportation. Moreover, a recent study showed that studying in select Chilean private schools and being male are the strongest predictors of reaching top executive jobs in the country.

Here’s how I did the research

Stephanie Alenda, the nonpartisan consulting firm Azerta and I conducted a study of Chile’s congressional candidates. We looked for information about candidates’ backgrounds and collected data using open sources, such as Chile’s Electoral Service, a government office that organizes elections nationally. Our study included candidates for Congress, including those elected, since 1990. We also fielded an online survey of all the candidates running for Congress in 2017, to which 25 percent responded. The survey was part of the Comparative Candidates Survey, a research project collecting data in 35 countries, and asked candidates about their political careers, attitudes, campaign strategies, harassment and more.

Private schools shape Chile’s elite

The data reveal that certain private schools are particularly successful in educating people who become members of Chile’s Congress. For example, graduates from the San Ignacio private schools, a group of Catholic schools with highly selective admissions, have been elected to Congress 43 times in the last four sessions, out of 299 people elected to Chile’s lower house of Congress. Most of these elite selective schools are Catholic — predominantly run by either the ultraconservative Opus Dei or the more liberal Jesuits — and almost all are based in Santiago.

This trend continues through the university level, as most public officials have studied for the same three degrees — law, medicine and engineering — in the same two top universities, the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and the University of Chile. That’s true across the political spectrum for people representing both left and right.

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Do all Chilean parties come entirely from the top socioeconomic strata?

As political scientists Juan Pablo Luna and David Altman’s research showed, Chilean political parties are highly institutionalized: They’re widely considered legitimate, and members compete internally for positions. But they’re not rooted in social movements, civic organizations or other aspects of most citizens’ ordinary lives. Most voters have historically refused to identify as party supporters.

Our survey shows that a very small proportion of mainstream parties’ candidates have been involved in grass-roots organizations. Political scientist Alenda’s research on mainstream-right political parties similarly finds that mainstream-right parties recruit internal party leaders — such as municipal party chairs — from local groups but rarely run them for Congress.

A new left-wing coalition, the Frente Amplio, founded in 2017, is an outlier. Our data find that up to a third of Frente Amplio candidates say they’ve been leaders in social movements; a quarter say they belong to trade unions, slightly more than the 20 percent of all Chileans. Frente Amplio candidates are also significantly younger than other parties’ candidates, and some have emerged from student unions. However, in the 2017 elections the party won 20 out of 155 seats in the lower chamber, and one in the senate.

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Why the sharp division between ordinary people and politicians?

One explanation for elite politics lies in the constitution drafted by Chile’s former right-wing dictatorship, run by Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990). The dictatorship worried that trade unions and local groups leaned to the left, and so the Constitution includes an explicit ban on allowing trade unionists or local neighborhood association leaders from running for elected office — and hasn’t been repealed. Political parties stopped looking at these groups when selecting their candidates, effectively separating civil society from political elites.

Chilean politicians have tried power-sharing initiatives, intending to get a broader array of citizens involved. Former president Michelle Bachelet held constitutional assemblies that engaged more than 200,000 people, asking for ideas for a new constitution. But the initiative stalled; her government drafted and proposed a new constitution only days before she left office. Bachelet also launched an ambitious urban initiative that got civic groups involved in redesigning Santiago’s main roads, called the Nueva Alameda-Providencia project. But Piñera axed this, citing budgetary constraints.

Recently, Piñera has responded to protesters’ demands. But even though he has replaced key cabinet members with some considered more centrist, he’s still relying on members of Congress from the same elite class.

Chilean political elites are fundamentally split from the rest of the society. They do not come from the same schools, or even the same school systems. They live in more expensive neighborhoods with better public services. They go to more elite universities and turn to a different health-care system. Chile is a classic example of the tale of two cities, with one ruling over the other.

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Javier Sajuria (@jsajuria) is a senior lecturer (associate professor) in politics at Queen Mary University of London. His research focuses on comparative political behavior and public opinion, particularly on political elites and voters.