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This week I have been closely following the experiences of Tomás Hirsch, the Humanist Party candidate for Congress Deputy in the 11th district of Chile because his wife and my good friend, Juanita Vergara, invited me back in May to come down to Santiago for the elections, already sensing six months ago that the political landscape had changed and that Chile was preparing to make a historic adjustment in direction and dare to take a chance on humanist politics.
The week of intense activity came to a conclusion today with the voting finally taking place. During the day we visited three voting centres, one in the high-end zone of Las Condes, where the rich and famous live. Hundreds of well-dressed, but mainly older Santiago residents lined up to vote. Even people in wheel-chairs and some walking on crutches came to perform their civic duty.
Later on we went to the neighbour of Peñalolen to accompany Tomás to vote. Here the local population has a completely different demeanour: younger, less affluent, more children accompanying. The day was baking hot and the crowds were making sure to keep out of the sun burning us overhead.
On our third polling station visit, to accompany Juanita, we encountered the same enthusiasm for voting, despite the fact that overall the turn out nationally barely reached 50%. Wherever we went in the 2 latter polling stations we were met by people happy to greet Tomás and pledge their support to him. In La Reina, a woman in a wheelchair said “I love you, Tomás! You can count on my support.” This is a man who has been working hard to represent the people of this neighbourhood for 25 years and in many parts of the country he has a loyal following after two presidential campaigns and thousands of kilometres travelled from north to south of this curious country squashed between the Andes mountains and the Pacific Ocean.
This campaign was to be his final one, having decided that if he didn’t make it this time then there was no hope for the Humanist Party project to be realised by him while still having the sufficient drive, motivation and vital energy to carry it out.
We have just come back from the party’s headquarters from where the campaign was implemented in precise detail and with a lot of hard work by dozens of volunteers working autonomously and in complementation: tens of thousands of leaflets were handed out and hundreds of banners in wooden frames known locally as palomas (doves) were erected all over the district. Here we waited as the votes were counted by table: 2053 of them with each one with up to 300 registered voters.
The result has been frankly spectacular. In a district returning 6 deputies to the Chilean Congress, and which voted overwhelmingly in favour of right-wing parties, only 1 came from the left: Tomás Hirsch. The coalition of parties including the Humanist Party – known as Frente Amplio (Broad Front) – captured 17% of the vote, with 7% for the Humanist Party, and 23,635 for Hirsch personally.
Hirsch waited until 90% of the tables had been counted, to ensure that the 0.75% lead over his nearest rival was unassailable before finally speaking to the people gathered whose level of excitement was reaching stratospheric levels by this time. He started by thanking everyone, his team and his family, including his heavily pregnant daughter who coordinated a lot of the campaign team’s activity. He thanked them for their dedication to a project that in some cases has lasted 30 years. He made clear that his role as the candidate was just one function of many that is required in order to develop a project of such audacity. He made special reference to the first ever elected Humanist, Laura Rodriguez who represented this district in the first post-dictatorship government in 1990 and who tragically died before finishing her term in Congress: her contribution is still recognised by the people around here despite leaving many of her plans unfinished and then rejected by the subsequent elected representatives of the district. He gave thanks to the Broad Front presidential candidate, Beatriz Sanchez for the tremendous job she has done in this campaign, inspiring people, especially women, wherever she went. He also thanked Silo, the spiritual guide and activist for nonviolent social change whose inspiration led to the creation of the Humanist Party back in 1984.
To add to the Humanist Party’s joy, another four candidates for deputy running on the Humanist Party platform have also been elected, making a total of 21 deputies in the Broad Front, or 14% of the 155 seat Chilean Congress. Seven local councillors have also been elected from the ranks of the Humanist Party.
The conformation of the Chilean Congress has changed dramatically, and from here, humanists and colleagues in the Broad Front will be able to develop projects for laws that truly reflect the needs and interests of the ordinary people of this country which has one of the worst inequality indices in the world.
It is not clear at the moment if the next president will be the right’s Sebastian Piñera who will do everything he can to roll back each and every one of the minimal advances in wealth distribution that was implemented by the current government of Michelle Bachelet, to the advantage of the rich, or if it will be Bachelet’s party’s successor Alejandro Guiller who shouldn’t be as bad as Piñera, but who will still maintain and deepen the neoliberal model of privatisation of public services and the cheap sell-off of the country’s natural resources.
What is clear, is that whichever one is elected, he will be faced by a formidable opposition of dedicated, sensitive, people-focused representatives who will do everything they can to put the value of human life at the centre of their programme for social change. And even though being in opposition makes it difficult for their projects to be approved, the work that they will be able to develop in their communities to really improve the lives of the people they represent should be an inspiring demonstration effect of how another Chile is possible and how another world is possible.
This evening, before going to watch the vote count unfold, Tomás said to me, “If I don’t get elected I have a plan, I’m going to book a holiday to Italy.” Well sorry Tomy, but that holiday will just have to wait! Now the real work starts. Now’s the time for you and your team to turn the set of ideals set out in a brilliant and inspiring manifesto into a set of concrete steps and projects which can be carried out and then evaluated by the people who elected you.
For sure you will be able to count on the great support of all the social movements who make up the Broad Front, and for sure Pressenza will be there every step of the way to cover everything that you and your colleagues will be doing.