Dec 17, 2021 - World

Far-right candidate catches up in Chile's high-stakes election

Kast (left) and Boric. Photo: Marcelo Hernandez/Getty Images

Two new polls ahead of Sunday's presidential election in Chile show far-right former congressman Jose Antonio Kast threatening to eclipse his left-wing rival, Gabriel Boric.

Why it matters: Chile has long been a byword for stability and prosperity in the region, but protests beginning in 2019 — sparked by a small hike in metro fares — thrust the country into a fierce debate over economic inequality and national identity. Two very different visions of Chile's future are on the ballot.

  • A constitutional convention consisting largely of political newcomers, many of them from the left, is currently working to rewrite Chile’s constitution, written during the era of dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973–1990).
  • Since Pinochet left power, a succession of center-left and center-right governments have overseen enviable economic growth. Chile has Latin America’s highest GDP per capita and second-lowest poverty rate, next to Uruguay.
  • But as incomes stagnated in the past decade, frustrations about inequality increased. And as Chile grew richer, the younger generations helped bring social and environmental issues to the fore, says Robert Funk, a political scientist at the University of Chile.

Breaking it down: If Boric symbolizes that shift in the status quo, Kast epitomizes the resistance to it.

  • Kast skillfully “lumps together” the issues of migration, drugs, crime and the indigenous uprisings in the south of the country, Funk says, though he does so in softer tones than Jair Bolsonaro, to whom he's often compared.
  • Like Bolsonaro, Kast spent years as a backbench congressman before the political winds started to blow in his direction. He has resisted comparisons to Donald Trump, but met with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on a recent visit to Washington.
  • Running on a law-and-order platform, the socially conservative father of nine has praised Pinochet’s legacy, proposed a border trench to keep out migrants, and opposed the decision last week by Chile’s Congress to legalize same-sex marriage.

The other side: Boric, 35, got his start in leftist student politics. He has criticized previous left-of-center governments as overly cautious and is backed by a coalition that includes Chile’s Communist Party. “If Chile was the birthplace of neoliberalism,” he promised voters, “it will also be its grave.”

  • Still, he describes himself as a social democrat, seeking to emulate Scandinavia rather than Cuba or Venezuela, says Funk.
  • He’s also tried to moderate his image during the runoff by adding the Chilean flag to his electoral backdrops and trimming his beard.
  • His pitch to voters has more in common with the younger progressives in Washington than Chavistas in Caracas. Still, many Chileans worry that once in office he’ll be under the influence of the hard left.

State of play: Kast narrowly topped the first round of voting last month, but Boric seemed to have a clear lead in the head-to-head polling. However, a poll released Tuesday showed that lead down to 3 points, and another published Thursday had both candidates at 48%.

The bottom line: The anti-establishment wave isn't unique to Chile, but it seems likely to change the country in profound ways, Funk says. "I think the last 30 years of Chilean politics — old, boring, stable Chile — is gone. We’re not going to go back."

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