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Young Chile leaders take fight from streets to Congress

Photo: @camila_vallejo / Twitter

Four former student leaders at the forefront of the movement for free education in Chile have won seats in Congress. With left-wing candidate Michelle Bachelet poised to return to power, they are bent on changing the system from within.


Chile’s general elections on Sunday delivered few surprises, with left-wing frontrunner Michelle Bachelet easily dominating the first round of the presidential race. She is now expected to cruise to victory against right-wing rival Evelyn Matthei in a December 15 run-off poll.

As the country waits for yet another duel between right and left-leaning coalitions, the story of four former student leaders who are taking their crusade for free education from the streets of Chile to the halls of Congress has been one eye-opening footnote.

Camila Vallejo, Karol Cariola, Giorgio Jackson and Gabriel Boric won their respective Congressional races on election night, becoming some of Chile’s youngest-ever lawmakers.

But while they are newcomers to Congress, their names are not completely unfamiliar to Chileans.

At different times, they have been at the forefront of the movement for free education that has organized over 40 protests in the past three years. Marches have often turned violent, with clashes against police reminding observers of turbulent episodes during the 1973-1990 dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet.

Secondary school pupils to university graduates have poured out of classrooms and into streets since 2011 to denounce what they say is a two-track education system that leaves poorer Chileans in the dust. They have called on leaders to provide quality and free education from kindergarten through to university levels.

New political generation

The four congressional rookies will be sworn in in March, and have pledged to continue fighting for their cause from within the system.

Vallejo, 25, a member of the Communist Party, won over 40% of votes in the popular district of La Florida near the capital of Santiago. A trained geographer, she gained wide attention as the president of the University of Chile Student Federation, or FEch in Spanish, in 2011.

On Sunday she won a seat in Congress under the broad left-wing New Majority coalition led by Bachelet.

Cariola, 26, is another member of the Communist youth league who has won a congressional seat by adopting the New Majority banner. Formally known for becoming the first female president of the Student Federation of Concepción University, she claimed 38% of votes in the Recoleta district in central Chile.

Of the four rising stars, the best performance on election night came from Jackson, the 26-year-old former president of the Catholic University Student Federation (FEUC). He garnered 46% support in Santiago’s 22nd district.

While running as a candidate representing his own Democratic Revolution independent party, Jackson counted with tacit support from Bachelet, whose group did not run an opponent against him.

Like Vallejo, Gabriel Boric, 27, was best known until now as a former FEch president. He won a ticket to Congress by claiming 26% of ballots in Santiago’s 60th district.

But while the push for free education has become one of the key issues of the political debate in Chile, and was embraced by Bachelet as part of her campaign to return to the country's highest office, the young lawmakers may still face an uphill battle in the new legislature.

Serious reforms in Chile – like changes to its education model – need broad support from Congress to become law. And while Bachelet looks all but poised to return to power by the end of the year, there is no guarantee that she and her young allies will count the majority they need in the new legislature to make good on their promises.

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