Chile on edge as voters lean to extremes ahead of election

Chile, hailed for decades as a model of steady economic growth but reeling from two years of social unrest, will vote on Sunday in a general election that has sharply polarised the country between the political left and right.

Huge uncertainty hangs over Sunday’s race, the first presidential ballot since the estallido, or explosion, of demonstrations in 2019 triggered by fare increases on the Santiago metro, which quickly escalated into anger over high living costs and income inequality.

The protests left Sebastián Piñera’s now deeply unpopular government on the verge of collapse, and set in motion the redrafting of the dictatorship-era constitution. Chile does not allow re-election to consecutive terms, so Piñera, whose presidency ends March, is not standing.

One of the frontrunners to advance to a second round run-off vote in December is 35-year old Gabriel Boric, a congressman and radical former student leader who shot to fame a decade ago during street protests against inequality in education.

He is hoping his pledge to bury Chile’s “neoliberal” past of market-oriented policies that have failed to narrow social divisions will resonate with younger voters.

Teachers protesting against Chile’s government hold signs depicting president Sebastián Piñera © Claudio Reyes/AFP via Getty Images

His main opponent, José Antonio Kast, is an ultra-conservative who defends free markets and traditional values. Kast, a 55-year-old former congressman and father of nine, has spoken out against immigration, same-sex marriage and abortion.

Kast has appealed to Chilean voters alienated by the left, promising to restore order and slash taxes under his new nationalist Republican party that he founded in 2019. “Dare yourself,” is his campaign slogan.

Andres Bustamante, a 31-year-old from Santiago who voted for Piñera during the last election, said Kast’s more extreme ideas made him uncomfortable, but admired how “he’s straight with people . . . Kast is the only one who has been consistent in his message.” 

In a bustling commercial district of the capital, Sarah González, a 35-year-old psychologist, said she would cast her vote in the first round for Boric, who she considered “the best of a bad bunch” but who still represented the political establishment, despite running as an independent.

There are five other contenders, including moderate Sebastian Sichel, a former social development minister under Piñera, whose performance in the final televised debate suggested he could undergo a “late surge to overtake Kast,” said Nicholas Watson, Latin America director at Teneo.

The political tensions have been further stoked by impeachment proceedings that had been brought against Piñera in an effort to oust him just months before he is due to leave office, which the ruling coalition said had been leveraged by the left for political gain.

Chile’s lower house narrowly voted to initiate the proceedings over allegations that the president acted improperly in his family’s $152m sale of a mining interest. But this week the 43-member Senate fell five votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to remove him from office.

Piñera may have avoided removal, but for the 15m Chileans eligible to vote, the fierce televised debates in both houses have demonstrated how sharply divided the country has become.

“There are two candidates, from two extremes . . . coming in after the weakest government Chile has had since our return to democracy [in 1990],” José De Gregorio, professor of economics and a former central bank governor, told the Financial Times.

Whoever becomes president will also oversee the voter-approved assembly that has begun drafting a replacement for the current deeply divisive constitution.

Adopted in 1980 in the middle of General Augusto Pinochet’s brutal regime, for many it represents a direct link to the dictatorship despite numerous modifications.

For others it has been a free-market handbook that enabled the country to become one of the most successful and stable economies in Latin America. The constitution favours private enterprise, which its supporters say has driven the country’s vigorous growth and lifted millions out of poverty.

The new assembly could weaken the president’s powers and expand the scope of the Chilean state. Robert Funk, a political scientist at the University of Chile, said the assembly’s emphasis on identity, diversity and political independence could “make it impossible to actually agree on anything”.

All of this could leave the newly elected leader with much less room to manoeuvre, right when the new text is put to a plebiscite in the third quarter of next year.

As for Piñera, he still faces four more months in office regardless of the outcome on Sunday. His approval rating is hovering at 20 per cent, meaning he risks ending his term more unpopular than Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

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