The Parties of the Left

Chile Table of Contents

The Communist Party of Chile (Partido Comunista de Chile--PCCh) is the oldest and largest communist party in Latin America and one of the most important in the West. Tracing its origins to 1912, the party was officially founded in 1922 as the successor to the Socialist Workers' Party (Partido Obrero Socialista--POS). It achieved congressional representation shortly thereafter and played a leading role in the development of the Chilean labor movement. Closely tied to the Soviet Union and the Third International, the PCCh participated in the Popular Front (Frente Popular) government of 1938, growing rapidly among the unionized working class in the 1940s. Concern over the PCCh's success at building a strong electoral base, combined with the onset of the Cold War, led to its being outlawed in 1948, a status it had to endure for almost a decade. By midcentury the party had become a veritable political subculture, with its own symbols and organizations and the support of prominent artists and intellectuals such as Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize-winning poet, and Violetta Parra, the songwriter and folk artist.

As a component of the Popular Unity coalition that elected Salvador Allende to the presidency in 1970, the PCCh played a strong moderating role, rejecting the more extreme tactics of the student and revolutionary left and urging a more deliberate pace that would set the groundwork for a communist society in the future. The military government dealt the PCCh a severe blow, decimating its leadership in 1976. Although the party called for a broad alliance of all forces opposed to the dictatorship, by 1980 it moved to a parallel strategy of armed insurrection, preparing cadres of guerrillas to destabilize the regime and provide the party with the military capability to take over the state should the Pinochet government crumble.

After the attempt on Pinochet's life in 1986, the democratic parties began to distance themselves from the PCCh because the PCCh was openly opposed to challenging the regime under the regime's own rules. The PCCh's strong stand against registration of voters and participation in the plebiscite alienated many of its own supporters and long-time militants, who understood that most of the citizenry supported a peaceful return to democracy.

Particularly problematic for the party was the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front (Frente Patriótica Manuel Rodríguez--FPMR), an insurrectionary organization spawned by the PCCh. The party found the FPMR difficult to rein in, and the FPMR continued to engage in terrorism after the demise of the military government. The FPMR had eclipsed Chile's better-known revolutionary group, the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria-- MIR), formed in the 1960s by university students, a movement that barely survived the repression of the military years. During the Aylwin administration, a group known as the Lautaro Youth Movement (Movimiento Juvenil Lautaro--MJL), an offshoot of the United Popular Action Movement-Lautaro (Movimiento de Acción Popular Unitario-Lautaro (MAPU-L), sought without success to maintain a "revolutionary" offensive.

The dramatic failure of the PCCh's strategy seriously undermined its credibility and contributed to growing defections from its ranks. The party was also hurt by the vast structural changes in Chilean society, particularly the decline of traditional manufacturing and extractive industries and the weakening of the labor movement. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its East European allies represented a final blow. Although the PCCh obtained 6.5 percent of the vote in the 1992 municipal elections, by mid-1993 it was enjoying less than 5 percent support in public opinion surveys and did not fare well in the 1993 presidential race.

The Socialist Party (Partido Socialista--PS), formally organized in 1933, had its origins in the incipient labor movement and working-class parties of the early twentieth century. The Socialist Party was far more heterogeneous than the PCCh, drawing support from blue-collar workers as well as intellectuals and members of the middle class. Throughout most of its history, the Socialist Party suffered from a bewildering number of schisms resulting from rivalries and fundamental disagreements between leaders advocating revolution and those willing to work within the system.

The Socialist Party's greatest moment was the election of Salvador Allende to the presidency in 1970. Allende represented the moderate wing of a party that had veered sharply to the left. The Socialist Party's radical orientation contributed to continuous political tension as the president and the PCCh argued for a more gradual approach to change and the Socialists sought to press for immediate "conquests" for the working class.

After the overthrow of Allende's Popular Unity government, the Socialist Party suffered heavy repression and soon split into numerous factions. Some joined with the Communists in supporting a more insurrectionary strategy. Another faction of "Renewed Socialists," led primarily by intellectuals and exiles in Western Europe, argued for a return to a moderate socialism for which democratic politics was an end in itself. The latter faction broke with the Marxist-Leninist line of the immediate past, embracing market economics and a far more pluralist conception of society. Guided by leaders such as Ricardo Lagos Escobar and Ricardo Núñez Muñoz, the Renewed Socialists reached an accord with the Christian Democrats to mount a common strategy to bring an end to the military government.

Prior to the 1988 plebiscite, the Socialists launched the Party for Democracy (Partido por la Democracia--PPD) in an effort to provide a broad base of opposition to Pinochet, one untainted by the labels and struggles of the past. Led by Lagos, an economist and former university administrator, the PPD was supposed to be an "instrumental party" that would disappear after the defeat of Pinochet. But the party's success in capturing the imagination of many Chileans led Socialist and PPD leaders to keep the party label for the subsequent congressional and municipal elections, working jointly with the Christian Democrats in structuring national lists of candidates.

The success of the PPD soon created a serious dilemma for the Socialist Party, which managed to reunite its principal factions-- the relatively conservative Socialist Party-Almeyda, the moderate Socialist Party-Núñez "renewalists," and the left-wing Unitary Socialists--at the Social Party congress in December 1990. Heretofore an instrument of the Socialists, the PPD became a party in its own right, even though many Socialists had dual membership. Although embracing social democratic ideals, PPD leaders appeared more willing to press ahead on other unresolved social issues such as divorce and women's rights, staking out a distinct position as a center-left secular force in Chilean society capable of challenging the Christian Democrats as well as the right on a series of critical issues.

As the PPD grew, leaders of the Socialist Party insisted on abolishing dual membership for fear of losing their capacity to enlarge the appeal of the Socialist Party beyond its traditional constituency. By 1993 both parties, working together in a somewhat tense relationship, had comparable levels of popular support in opinion polls. In a March 1993 survey by the Center for Public Studies (Centro de Estudios Públicos--CEP) and Adimark (a polling company), 10.6 percent of Chilean voters identified with the PPD while 8.5 percent registered a preference for the Socialist Party. As the 1993 presidential election approached, PPD leader Ricardo Lagos signaled his intention to challenge the Christian Democrats for the presidential candidacy of the CPD. His move indicated the determination of the parties of the moderate left to remain an important force in Chilean politics. However, Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, the son of the former president, defeated Lagos in a convention of CPD parties held on May 23, 1993, making him the strong favorite to win the presidential elections scheduled for December 11, 1993. Frei Ruiz-Tagle won by a vote of 60 percent, while Lagos received 38 percent.

Other parties that could be placed on the center-left included the Humanist-Green Alliance (Alianza Humanista-Verde) and the Social Democratic Party (Partido Social Democrático), an offshoot of the Radical Party, which managed to elect one of its leaders to the Senate. These new parties were successful in mobilizing support against Pinochet in the plebiscite but faltered in subsequent elections.

More about the Government and Politics of Chile.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress