Jorge Sharp and Citizen Movements:New Momentum for Chilean Left?

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By 2017-11-17

By Nessim Achouche

To understand the unprecedented outcome of the last Valparaiso municipal elections, it must be considered as the challenge that it represents to the Chilean political stability at the national and local levels. Indeed, since the end of the dictatorship in 1990, incumbency has oscillated between two political factions; the first is a large center-left coalition, primarily comprised of the "Democracia Cristiana" (Christian Democrats) and the "Partido Socialista" (Socialist party), that governed the country continuously from 1989 to 2010. The alliance expanded in 2013 to integrate the "Partido Communista" (Communist Party) within its ranks, and rebranded itself the "Nueva Mayoria" (New Majority). On the other hand, the opposition is an aggregate of the centre-right and the highly conservative right-wing political parties. The latter are considered to be the default democratic heir of the Pinochet era that regained power in 2010 with the election of the business mogul Sebastian Piñera. Politically, what characterizes this period of renewed Democracy is the tacit consensus from across the political spectrum to uphold the neoliberal economic model that was pursued during the dictatorship.

Student Protests

Although not yet born at the advent of the military coup on 11th September 1973, Jorge Sharp is not an unknown figure within Chilean political circles. He first entered the political scene during the famous student protests that shook the country for several months in 2011. During that time Sharp was at the head of a student federation in Valparaiso. He will rapidly try to translate politically what can now no longer be understood as an isolated cry against a dysfunctional educational system, but rather, as a concerted rejection, especially by the youth, of the political oligarchy in power since the end of the dictatorship. He then joined the Marxist-influenced Party, "Izquierda Autonoma" (Autonomous Left), created in 2008. Within its ranks, Sharp met Gabriel Boric, who is now an influential political figure, and Chilean Representative in southern Chile. Quickly, however, Sharp distanced himself from the directives of "Izquierda Autonoma", notably with regards to its electoral strategies and the desire to join the incumbent coalition.

As a result, in January 2016, he will conjointly with Boric create the "Movimiento Autonomista" (Autonomous Movement), a new political party with the ambition of becoming a prominent player in Chilean politics.

Nonetheless, in October 2015, a few months prior to the Party's inception, a Valparaiso citizen and associative group called "La Matriz Urbana" (the Urban Matrix), decided to enter the November 2016 municipal elections. Sharp, now a young lawyer was a member of the group. La Matriz Urbana embraced an open platform wherein a number of local civil societies agreed upon a shared political ethos spearheaded by two paramount objectives:

Firstly, to appoint a candidate who stems from local politics or from other endogenous social movements, who will ultimately challenge traditional political parties and the incumbent Mayor Jorge Castro Muñoz. Castro Muñoz was a member of "l'Union de Los DemocratasIndependientes" (The Union of Independent Democrats), a conservative party, in power for the last two terms.
Secondly, initiate an inclusive participatory process to elaborate a comprehensive political agenda to be implemented by the designated candidate.

Like Boric before him, under the Movimiento Autonomista banner, participated to the Matriz Urbana's primaries which he won by a thin margin. The election, open to all residents of Valparaiso, was marked by a weak turnout with little more than 5,000 voters, which represented only 3 per cent of the total electorate. This unimpressive score prevented Sharp from having decisive backing and conferred little legitimacy at the start of the campaign trail. Nonetheless, with the support of the Matriz Urbana front, he succeeded in transforming a civic movement into a fully-fledged inclusive candidature, and rallied militant and politicized groups around him. It is these same local social movements, ranging from environmentalists to feminist factions, but also including labour unions and other neighbourhood co-ops, who carried and advocated Sharp's candidature to the local populace. This new political regrouping took on the name of "Movimiento Valparaiso Ciudadano" and placed a special emphasis on citizen movements as its driving force.

The programme proposed by Sharp was composed of several propositions, many of which were centred on sustainable urban development. Attention was focused on the 'higher' locations of Valparaiso, which tend to be underprivileged areas prone to recurrent wildfires (as was the case in 2014), and the objective was to equip these areas with functional public infrastructure (running water, sewers). The primacy of education was also at the core of this new programme, with a commitment to strengthen public education and to establish a common pedagogic bedrock, that was clearly stated. This educational programme was structured to integrate the unique challenges and features of Valparaiso's socioeconomic and environmental landscape.

Three months after being invested as the candidate of Movimiento Valparaiso Ciudadano, Jorge Sharp won the municipal primaries with 54 per cent of the vote, a decisive victory over the incumbent Mayor and a candidate chosen by the governing centre -left coalition, each with tallies of 22 per cent. Although this margin was considerable for Sharp, the abstention rate was historically high, close to 69 per cent (compared to the national average of 66 per cent). This is an important element to take into consideration when evaluating this political upset.

The electoral success of Movimiento Valparaiso Ciudadano, and how it came to be, have sent a ripple through the current presidential election campaign, and cast a shadow over political debates. By positioning itself outside of an historical bipartisanship, with its claim to harnessing citizen movements, the Valparaiso experience has not gone unnoticed by the Chilean political landscape.

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