Political differences between leaders could cause serious setbacks in Chile's student movement
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Political differences between leaders could cause serious setbacks in Chile's student movement

November is a critical month for universities across Chile. Most hold their annual student elections, choosing the new leaders of their federations. The ballots are as big a deal as any governmental election, as students play a central role in Chilean politics, driving the long-standing and contentious debate over education reform. A series of massive student protests culminating in 2011 brought the government to the negotiating table and kick-started reform in earnest.

Nowhere is this key role more clear than in two of Santiago’s highly influential schools, the Universidad Católica and Universidad de Chile, where students cast their votes to decide on their 2015 student federation at the beginning of the month.

On the morning of November 5, as little as 30 percent of the student body voted to choose the next Universidad de Chile Student Federation (FECH). Left-wing slate “Somos Fuerza” took the majority of the votes and architecture student Valentina Saavedra was elected president.

The federation has called for 2015 to be known as “the year of higher education” and seeks to spur the government of President Michelle Bachelet to honor her campaign promises. Their primary objective is to put an end to profiteering (lucro) in higher education institutions — a historic demand of the student movement — and leaders hope the government will negotiate the reform with civil society and not “behind closed doors.”

“If the government keeps up this attitude of not listening to society, then society will have to express itself and march on the street as many times as necessary, until the reform is what it set out to be,” said Saavedra in a press conference.

Read more: Chile’s private education defenders oppose Bachelet’s proposed reforms

Two days after the FECH election, almost 7,000 students of the Universidad Católica’s student federation (FEUC) took to the polls. The result: the right-wing Movimiento Gremial (Union Movement) triumphed over the Nueva Acción Universitaria (New University Action) group by almost 1,000 votes, ending the latter’s six-year reign. The Union Movement seeks to build a “just” educational system, but is against nationalization of all universities, describing itself as “the other voice” in the student movement.

“Next year we’re going to stand firm, we’re going to take this to the Confech [the umbrella student organization] and all necessary sectors to represent a different voice and set the reform on a different trajectory,” said law student and FEUC president-elect Ricardo Sande.

Implications for the student movement

The political discrepancy between the two federations comes at a crucial time where profound and controversial reforms to the Chilean educational system are under the microscope in Congress.

In this polarized climate, the FEUC and the FECH will have to sort out their differences in the Confech if they want the student movement to stay united and heard.

“[The Union Movement victory] is complicated because a group that opposes the student movement’s demands is now entering the arena. Nonetheless, I think that first and foremost we must ensure that Confech maintains its democratic spirit,” Saavedra told local radio station Cooperativa. “The decisions that are made in the Confech must be respected whether one likes them or not,” she added.

The student movement has already been criticized for its alleged inactivity throughout 2014, in contrast to the frequent demonstrations of previous years. Even newly-elected FECH VP Javiera Reyes admits that the movement has lately lost steam.

“There have been setbacks, there has been a weakening [of the movement] and that has led to problems of organization and amassing numbers throughout the whole year,” Reyes told press after the elections.

University politics have become an important platform for aspiring politicians in Chile, with protests in recent years launching the careers of former student leaders such as deputies Camila Vallejo (Communist Party), Giorgio Jackson (Democratic Revolution) and Independent Gabriel Boric. Unless the current cohort of student leaders can overcome their differences and develop a united program, though, their demands will likely fall on deaf ears before their careers even get started.