Governance, Transformation

My Experience Running a Spiritually-Based Political Campaign

Don’t let old politics destroy our dreams for a better collective destiny

Politics and Spirituality Come Together

I was a candidate for the presidency of Chile. Was it a dream or a reality?

It is impossible to forget the morning of November 17, 2013, when I arrived in my little village of Ninhue to vote. My arrival was originally scheduled for 9AM. This was the time when all TV and radio stations allocated prime time to report on my campaign. However, nature dictated otherwise.

There was a dense fog that did not allow the little plane to take off in the direction of Chillán, the closest town to Ninhue, in southern Chile. It simply could not take off. In the end, we arrived in Chillán, some 320 miles away from Santiago, around 11AM. Immediately after landing, we drove 35 miles on a narrow road to reach our final destination. At that point, the country had witnessed the voting of all other presidential candidates, all of whom voted in Santiago, the capital city. I was the only candidate who voted in a faraway region.

In Ninhue, hundreds of people welcomed me cheering, hugging, and expressing numerous words of love. Television and radio stations were transmitting live and all of them were very surprised to see the joy and smiles of so many children, youth, and citizens of all ages. A rural scene with people dressed differently—many of them riding their horses—and a large number of women and girls with braided hair like mine. I was so involved with the people that when I got into the voting station inside of one of Ninhue’s primary schools, I realized I had forgotten to bring my ID card. That created quite a bit of consternation, but it all worked out wonderfully in the end.

That November day was unique—to say the least. A moment when an infinite number of old and new ideas came to my mind on how to construct—with the people—a better future for our society. It was also a moment to express to everyone the nature and scope of my government’s contribution to society. My body, mind, and soul came into ONE, and there was a phrase, like a mantra, that repeated itself millions of times: “your mission in this lifetime is to serve the poor people, the nation, and the world.”

It was a sublime experience where politics and spirituality came into one single-pointed moment. From deep within, I knew that in this Age of Aquarius (the era of self-realization) politics without spirituality did not have any authority, and that spirituality, when practiced as separate from politics and the public good of humanity, was just a theory (e.g., just an abstract construct within the mind). There was a need to share with the people, again and again, that my only purpose in politics was to serve them and not to serve myself for political gains.

The Decision to Run for President of Chile Without False Images of Who I Am

To run for president was not an easy decision. It took me more than a year to decide. Key to this decision was a four and a half month silent retreat in a special region of Northern Thailand. I posed the fundamental question of how to change the world, and I felt deeply in my heart that spirituality must become part and parcel of politics, business, and economics. My conclusion was that the future of the entire world, and not only of Chile, depends on this process of mainstreaming.

After my retreat, back in Chile, I sought advice from many people. I will never forget those gurus in political marketing, professional image makers, communication specialists, and even some of my own friends, who stated, “Alfredo, if you want to be president of Chile you must cut your hair immediately and get back the suits you wore while at the World Bank.” In a similar vein, some spiritual leaders mentioned to me that I should not run for public office because my campaign will become the arena to debate about my clothing and look, not the stage to focus on my ideas and programs. As the decision process went along, some people shouted, “for God’s sake, why enter into politics!” In the end, my decision was to run for president without any false image of myself. I decided to share with the Chilean people exactly who I was, plain and simple, and not create what was seen as a politically correct image of a president—something market-based and artificial.

All along I had the total support of my three children, some relatives, and a few very good friends. There was also a core of political supporters who were really involved and fully on board in the campaign. My gratitude to all of them is overflowing.

A Spiritually-Based Political Campaign

This political campaign opened an incredible opportunity to challenge the current model of economic and social development, both nationally and worldwide. It was also a moment to propose something completely different and to challenge the existing neoliberal economic system to the maximum extent.

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I travelled the country and had the heart-filling privilege to listen to thousands of people. Every time I was in front of a microphone I entered into a space of gratitude and humility. Fully aware of the challenges facing so many people, my body, mind, and soul were offered to each and every citizen. In my travels, I found we have many Chiles—the richest in the world and the poorest.

The presidential debates were quite an experience. It reminded me of so many moments I experienced at the World Bank, the United Nations, and the many countries visited during my career as a resource and environmental economist. My whole self often observed all the other candidates with appreciation, love, and compassion. During many hard working days and sleepless nights, I prepared diligently to give my very best to the country.

My gratitude remains to those who looked into my eyes and said, “keep going, it is important, your contribution matters, we are thousands, we love you, now politics makes sense, do not be discouraged…”

At the same time, it was, of course, impossible to dismiss those who said, “we disagree with you, your ideas are mainly esoteric, come back 30 years from now, you are too far ahead of our reality, you are a utopian, it is impossible for you to win, there is no way you could become president, stop your campaign.”

The images of those who greeted me from their windows, the children who ran towards me and embraced me tight, the women who cried of happiness and new hope, and the elder persons who approved with a smile, all formed a mosaic of reality that touched me deeply.

There were endless moments studying, preparing, and realizing all of the different dimensions and corners of Chile. My son would frequently accompany me at those late hours of the night and would remind me to sleep for a couple of hours. He was my shoulder, support, and safe place to rely upon. My daughters committed themselves to each and every aspect of this process too. Their contribution was immense, even if what they were doing was not seen by the general public. They risked every asset they had. Maria Jose was pregnant and she kept me very concerned because the level of stress could have had major negative consequences to her pregnancy. Maria Francisca was a tremendous support and a source of encouragement in moments when I most needed it. She was an impeccable professional and a loving soul. My daughter-in-law, Vanessa, was close to me most of the time and assisted in all personal aspects of my life. She was sweet, quiet, and extremely effective.

Perhaps one of the best pieces of advice I received was from my brother Luis: “always speak, act, and relate to people as if it were the last time.”

And I cannot forget someone who was firmly beside this great cause, who never asked me for a coin, and was there 24 hours a day. There is no doubt in my soul that my disciples, friends, and new acquaintances, joined by hundreds of volunteers, all added immeasurable value to the campaign. Some militants of the green party were unique in the ways they supported me. I send infinite gratitude to all of them!

Only a New Level of Human Collective Consciousness Serving All Life Will Bring a New Politics

It took some months of campaigning to be able to crystalize a fundamental conclusion that may come as a shock to some of you: politics is fundamental and indispensable to all societies. Whether we like it or not, practically everything is influenced by political decisions of all sorts. This is a fact. Most people, at least in my country, see this reality very clearly. However, there is a lot of discontent among many citizens who manifested their lack of motivation by not voting at all. A huge number of voters abstained from participating, as they demanded new ways to do politics, economics, and social change.

This fundamental fact begged the fundamental question of how will the new way to do politics be defined and practiced in the future. While running for president of Chile, I found an answer: “A new politics will be born only if spirituality and politics become ONE.” In this new era of humanity, the spiritual foundation of politics is to serve the people (seva), but service is not just a word or an activity. Service is a human value, a space of constant interaction, and a unique experience of ‘the other.’

More than ever before, I believe that to serve is the most effective and practical way to express the essence of our interdependence in all we do. To serve others is a space that we must enter, experience, and enjoy. For many spiritual beings, service is the sure path towards enlightenment.

Because of this universal nature of service, it is possible to generalize to a more global perspective: we must acknowledge that there will not be an individual destiny (my personal future) without walking the path of a collective destiny together—our destiny as humanity. To enliven the path of the human collective, we must self-realize this mantra: “I am because you are; you are because I am.”

It is a must that a new form of politics unfolds in the immediate future. Within the public domain, this new politics must be based upon the notion of service that invokes human life and all other forms of life. The new politics is not just to serve the needs and objectives arising from human existence alone, but it must simultaneously serve the rights and needs of all forms of life existing on this planet. For this reason, I spoke very passionately about the importance of nature and its relationship with our material and spiritual welfare.

Consequently, during the campaign, we stood firm on a fundamental message: only a new level of human collective consciousness will bring a new politics. This was not said as a slogan or as a theoretical construct, though some opponents used these words as a way to diminish the impact of our messages. In my view, the vision proposed—a sustainable society with an empowered citizenship—was as real and as practical as anyone could experience. The whole purpose of my campaign and the fundamental reason for being into politics was to stimulate and nurture this new human collective consciousness.

Because spirituality must be where it is not—which has been a principle I stated more than five decades ago—I decided to enter into politics with the single purpose of mainstreaming spirituality into public policy. However, the idea of mainstreaming spirituality into politics was not new to my discourse; it has been shared many times, orally and in writing, at the United Nations and the World Bank.

What Did I Learn from the Campaign?

It is not clear to me how historians will end up writing about the last Chilean presidential election. Many interesting elements must be considered. One was that there were nine candidates seeking the position of highest office, seven of which were defined as ‘alternative candidates’ to the traditional parties that had held power during the last several decades. Never in our history had there been so many presidential candidates. However, to me, it was not the number that mattered but the rainbow of new ideas and challenges shared with all citizens.

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From the very beginning of the campaign, I was convinced that this process was not just about comparing and/or evaluating who had proposed the best development and social programs. It goes without saying that the programs advocated by a candidate were important. However, the most important consideration of a presidential campaign was how the different candidates expressed their vision of Chile’s future. It was all about a new vision as represented by our motto: ‘el otro camino’ (the other road). We are on the road towards a sustainable society and empowered development.

Despite the fact that this vision and motto constituted something very new to the electorate, many people resonated with them. However, for the country as a whole, the election demonstrated that sustainability was not their central issue. Like a broken record, I repeated that sustainability was not an added theme to this campaign, but that it was the fundamental issue. Sustainability is not simply another option for the country; it is our only destiny. Many people reacted to this manifesto saying that my program was extremely fundamental to the future of Chile, but that the country was not prepared yet to run with these ideas. The media reflected the feeling that such a program required a high level of collective consciousness that (they said) the people of Chile still have not attained.

This electoral process became like my schoolmaster. Many things were learned, either because they were useful or because they were necessary to avoid being naïve.

I learned that many people live in a world of non-truth. This is a state where things are not really true but, at the same time, they are also not really false. At the beginning, I did not perceive that state very well, including when it was practiced by some of my collaborators. Sometimes things sounded like they were true, but deep in my heart I knew they were not. At the same time, they were also not a plain lie. This experience of living in a world of non-truth was very unsettling for me as I wanted to be really truthful to the people. I never followed such a practice and, thus, being truthful got me into lots of trouble!

Most of you know well many other areas where the non-truth is permanently practiced—for example, political strategy where the end justifies the means, or the idea that in politics there are no ethical concerns to worry about, or, even worse, that in politics anything goes. As I gained experience, it was possible for me to identify the principal reason for this tendency to live in the world of the non-truth. Many politicians live in the world of non-truth because the media and the social system in general expect that all candidates have to know about every subject matter. If for any reason a candidate would say, “I do not know the answer,” this would constitute the beginning of the end of his or her political campaign. Thus, the tendency was and still is to find and rescue any plausible answer that would sound or be perceived as close to the truth as possible, even if it were non-truth. In politics, one learns that the rules of punishment for not knowing or being wrong are extremely severe. With the practice of the non-truth, most people are not truly genuine or personal. By necessity, most politicians are detached from who they really are.

Another thing I learned was related to the real meaning of ‘justice,’ something very complex to deal with. A famous lawyer put it to me right in front of my eyes: “Alfredo, justice is not about truth, it is about what is politically correct.” As most of the challenges we face in politics are really about justice in its broader sense, I had no other choice than to go against the mainstream. Imagine how many issues of justice there were within the debate on empowerment and within a society known for its inequity and its very high levels of wealth concentration. Equally, the whole debate about sustainability and attaining a sustainable society is full of justice-related issues, like the rights of future generations, the rights of indigenous peoples, the responsibility of those who have to pay for the pollution generated somewhere else in the system, the necessity of a governance structure linked to the management of the common good, and the demand for an organizational foundation to care for our planet Earth.

Yet another area that caught my devoted attention was ‘image creation.’ One dimension is one’s own personal image that, as I pointed out earlier, I faced from day number one. There is also the image that is being created through all media outlets, including the Internet, Google, Facebook, and Twitter. To confess, in many instances one realizes that a great deal of information, statements, and projections are just a means to creating an image. To those who firmly believe that the end justifies the means, imagemaking can provoke situations where how to do things changes constantly. One day the person says or does one thing, and the next day it’s just the opposite. It was like an uncontrolled paranoia—very uncomfortable!

Another area not less important was timing. Presidential campaigns are all about timing. Having lived in an Anglo-Saxon culture (life and work), I have this penetrating phrase written all over my forehead: “timing is everything.” The critical question was: Whose timing is most important? Some time-doctors tried to give erroneous advice in this regard. My deep belief is that in a spiritually-based political campaign what really matters is the inner timing of the leader. Thus, those who were sensitive to this rule of timing noticed that when the timing of the leader was permeating things, all would work for the campaign (speaking, responding, debating, etc.). If not, then someone else’s timing would derail and set real limits to what could be accomplished. My spiritual development in this area was vast and I am grateful.

Finally, let me add another lesson: the recognition that in politics one is really and truly invaded by a singular notion of ‘success.’ This notion includes the elements I have presented above (e.g., timing, image). The notion of success was to win the election. This situation opened my soul to deep moments of quiet meditation and to reflect on the different notions of success, some of which were imposed by other people. It is all too easy that a campaign follows the track of a wrong notion of success. The situation reminded me of a personal dialogue I had with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi when he created the Natural Law Party (NLP) in the US. This party presented a presidential candidate during a few elections. Under the traditional notion of success, the candidate always lost the elections (‘unsuccessful’). At the time, I was eager that the NLP would win at least once and I therefore expressed to Maharishi this deep desire to win at least one election. He answered me in no uncertain terms: “who told you that our notion of success is defined or measured by winning elections?!” This answer kept me meditating for years on the true meaning of success. In our campaign, some people’s notions of success led them to act in erratic ways that were counterproductive and unnecessary. The notion of success generally influences the means to be used, how priorities are set, how funds are allocated, etc.

Debating the Issues in a Global Context

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Many of my interventions focused on macro issues, which surprised many people and the candidates themselves. The ideas of a green economy, sustainable development, the empowerment of people, ecological challenges, etc., were not only addressed from a micro and regional perspective, but also presented within an economy-wide perspective. I am grateful to my doctorate at the University of Wisconsin where I specialized in environmental macroeconomics. This expertise was sharpened later at the World
Bank when I had to work closely with many macroeconomists and present and defend my environmental views. This is an area of expertise very much lacking in our country and in many other countries around the world.

Through the lens of environmental macroeconomics, one is able to effectively debate issues pertaining to trade and consumption issues, growth and competitiveness, entrepreneurship and corporate development, taxation and tax reforms, education, constitutional reforms, and much more. In this respect, we advanced several important notions; one of them was a form of competition that does not destroy the environment and that embodies the costs of any destruction of ecosystems and natural resources—an eco-competitiveness.

The campaign provided a fertile ground to debate world problems as well as the future of Latin America. Regarding the world, it is fundamental to strengthen the UN System now. A new form of global governance must emerge with the UN leading this change and its implementation. Regarding Latin America, it is essential to fill a political vacuum that is eroding the future. New forms of leadership are required and we must create the conditions for this leadership to flourish.

Without clean air and water, without a global strategy for our own common good, the future of humanity looks grim. However, I strongly believe that ‘el otro camino’ (the other road) is possible and that we have all the means to walk that road.

We must be engaged, we must be real, and we must be spiritually strong. We must be in service to humanity.