The first round of Chile’s recent presidential election was full of surprises. The political duopoly that had dominated the country for decades collapsed, with two candidates of opposite political extremes coming out on top — one, the pro-Pinochet, far-right candidate José Antonio Kast; the other, Gabriel Boric, fronting a broad leftwing coalition. But nothing was more surprising than the third place finisher: Franco Parisi, a self-proclaimed anti-establishment candidate of the center-right Partido de la Gente.
Parisi commands almost one million votes, a big enough bloc to almost certainly sway the upcoming runoff election between Kast and Boric. Chile’s unlikely kingmaker did all this without setting foot in the country. Parisi conducted his all-digital campaign remotely almost 6,000 kilometers away in Birmingham, Alabama, where he works as a private consultant.
Presidential campaigning from abroad isn’t a totally novel concept: Gustavo Envela has run numerous campaigns to become president of Equatorial Guinea from his headquarters in Washington D.C. Bolivia’s Evo Morales kicked off a successful campaign for his MAS party back in 2019 from exile in Argentina, returning a few months before winning the election.
But unlike those candidates, Parisi is not in exile — although there are suspicions that he’s staying out of the country over accusations of owing hundreds of thousands of dollars in alimony payments. He told Rest of World that he campaigned entirely from abroad for practical reasons.
“I had work and family commitments,” Parisi said over a phone interview. “And when I was about to get on a plane to Chile, coronavirus struck.”
Whether he returns or not, observers say that Parisi has upended traditional political campaigning in Chile. There is an expectation that a politician must be on the ground “to knock on doors and kiss babies,” said Kenneth Bunker, director of Tresquintos, a Chilean election analysis organization. “Parisi proved that wasn’t the case. Not only did you not need to spend much money on an in-person campaign but you could do it from anywhere in the world.”
Parisi has been in politics for less than a decade. He rose to prominence in the early 2010s, when he gained celebrity status for explaining economic terminology in layman’s terms on radio and TV shows. He ran for president in 2013, finishing in fourth place.
“But then he disappeared,” said Bunker. “He played no significant role in the 2017 [presidential] election.”
In 2014, Parisi became the first Visiting International Scholar at Texas Tech University. At some point, while working in the finance department of TTU’s business school, the university launched a Title IX investigation against Parisi’s supervisor. The subsequent report, which was detailed in local news accounts, alleged student accusations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior by Parisi during a school sponsored trip to Chile in the spring of 2015.
No formal charges were brought against him and Parisi moved to Alabama, where he became a professor at the University of Alabama. When the allegations from the Title IX investigation in Texas resurfaced publicly in 2016, he and UA parted ways. He still lives in Birmingham.
Parisi dismissed the allegations to Rest of World, claiming that the fact that he has not been asked to leave the U.S. was proof that the claims were not substantiated.
Parisi has other scandals on his record too: according to a report from T13, an evening news channel, he is alleged to owe more than $240,000 in alimony payments back in Chile.
Despite the scandals and allegations, by 2018 and 2019, Parisi was polling consistently at the 5% mark for the upcoming presidential election, said Bunker. That was before he even declared his run for the presidency late this summer.
Parisi’s Partido de la Gente, which was founded in 2019, is popular with Chile’s dissatisfied middle-class. “It is a party without ideology,” Valeska Oyarce Peña, president of Partido de la Gente for the metropolitan Santiago region, told Rest of World. Politically ambiguous, the Partido de la Gente is staunchly regionalist, tough on migration, lax on taxes, and critical of the recent protests associated with the left.
Social media was a practical and inexpensive means of reaching voters from abroad, Parisi said. “We didn’t have the funding to run a traditional political campaign,” he explained, “because we didn’t have the support of the mainstream media. … We had to find a way to bypass them to get to the people, so what we did was to use technology via social media.”
The social media campaign took years to piece together, during which time the Partido de la Gente tailored messages to very specific audiences, like “a single mother renting an apartment or an old age pensioner with a prosthetic limb,” said Parisi.
The campaign tweaked the length and tone of its videos across Whatsapp, Telegram, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok to see what resonated best.
As a result of this messaging strategy, the Parisi campaign was able to “get to know the characteristics and build the loyalty of his target audience, because he understood the importance of social media as well as how to channel the same message across different platforms,” Chilean journalist Paula Schmidt, told Rest of World.
The targeted messaging seems to have resulted in a more effective conversion of social media followers into ballots. The Parisi campaign’s social media followings were smaller than those of his opponents, but he “was able to capitalize on his social media followers in a much more effective way,” said Bunker, “Yes; Kast has more YouTube subscribers but he doesn’t convert them [into votes]. Parisi does because his social media following is where he placed all his bets — he didn’t even attend the debate.”
Parisi skipped the country’s presidential debates, which was thought to be a blunder at the time. But the Partido de la Gente candidate had a different reading of the situation. “Online voters,” he told Rest of World, “don’t buy into the packaged version sold to them by the media.”
The slogan “digital democracy” has become core to Partido de la Gente’s political platform. As one of its founding principles, the party pledges to use technology to “promote the empowerment of the citizenry … in the taking of public and political decisions” which will extend to the party’s six new seats in the Chilean Congress. They will be expected to interact in real time with party members to determine how they’ll vote.
“Digital democracy will mean that if our elected officials have to vote for, let’s say an abortion bill, they will have to ask party members to vote for or against the proposal and then cast their vote depending on what our members decided upon,” said metropolitan Partido de la Gente president Oyarce Peña.
Alongside its enthusiasm for technology, Parisi’s party has created a formidable movement on the ground. Partido de la Gente takes special care in getting people to turn up to events, making it an explicit expectation for members to attend “in-person gatherings” in digital flyers distributed across various platforms.
But even now, Parisi is ambivalent about returning to Chile to help his party prepare for the runoff election. When asked if he’ll be flying back soon, he said, “I don’t know yet. My son is still at school, we’re on Thanksgiving break now and he’ll be finishing on December 19 [the same day as the second round].”
To outside observers, his absence is still the elephant in the room. “It is my belief that if he comes [to Chile], he’ll have legal problems and won’t be able to leave the country,” said Bunker, who believes that Parisi ‘s absence is “completely a legal issue.”
When pushed as to whether he’d go to Chile to help his party decide on its historic runoff strategy, Parisi said, “every step of my life has been a historic moment. I think that what we did in this campaign was iconic and we’ll probably want to write a book about it, because there were many lessons to be learnt from it. We’re living through the death of a political era.”
His followers seem equally caught up in the moment. Rest of World asked a WhatsApp group of Parisi supporters whether they’d like their leader to be back in Chile for the runoff vote. “I care about ideas, not about the person,” a supporter responded. “I don’t care whether he’s in China or Timbuktu.”