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LATIN AMERICA | 20-11-2021 09:30

Uncertainty hangs over presidential race as Chile heads to ballot box

Seven candidates – ranging from the far left to extreme right – are in the running to be Chile’s next president, among them Pinochet admirer José Antonio Kast.

Fifteen million voters, half of them believed to be undecided, will go to the ballot box in Chile next Sunday to choose President Sebastián Piñera's successor. Seven candidates are on the slate, spanning from the far left to the extreme right, in one of the most uncertain elections in Chilean history.

Votes will also be cast tomorrow for 155 deputies, 27 of Chile’s 43 senators and regional councillors. It will be the fourth election since 2020 to be held in the country, which is going through a period of change since a fierce social uprising almost two years ago.

Representatives of the two most antagonistic political poles are the favourites to win the race: left-wing Frente Amplio deputy Gabriel Boric, the youngest candidate in Chile’s history at 35, and the far-right Partido Republicano politician José Antonio Kast, 55.

But given the lack of solid polling, with dissemination of forecasts prohibited by law for 15 days in the lead-up to the vote, right-wing governing coalition candidate Sebastián Sichel, 44, and the only woman in the race, Yasna Provoste, 51, a former minister in ex-president Michelle Bachelet’s government, could surprise.

"The right wing proposes order without change and Boric, changes without order. Both lead us to uncertainty," said Provoste in a debate on Monday. 

The Demócrata Cristiana senator presents herself as the proud "heir" of the Concertación, the centre-left coalition that has governed Chile for a large part of the 31 years that have passed since democracy returned, following the disintegration of the dictatorship led by the brutal Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).

"Not since the 1988 plebiscite [which decided Pinochet's departure] have I felt this much uncertainty," said Silvia Gutiérrez, a 60-year-old nurse who works in Santiago and lives in Melipilla, a rural commune in the metropolitan region some 70 kilometres from the capital.

In Gutiérrez's family, "we always voted for the Concertación, and now we are all divided: there are those on the right and those on the left, but [we won’t vote for] none of the extremes," she said, reflecting the nation’s political divisions and open race.

"There is a distortion produced by the mediocrity of politics, a degradation of politics," analyst and pollster Marta Lagos, the executive director of Latinobarómetro consultancy firm, told AFP, explaining the lack of reliable polls and rise of the extreme right.

Campaigning for all seven presidential hopefuls closed on Thursday. Voting takes place between 8am and 6pm on Sunday.

 

Pivotal moment

Since 2012, when voting stopped being mandatory, turnout in Chilean elections has been low. For this reason, electoral analysts forecast that the race will go to a second round run-off, scheduled for December 19.

The presidential election, in addition to being unpredictable, is taking place in the midst of the drafting of a new constitution, rising inflation of six percent and a collapse of the country’s traditional politics, a reflection of a general crisis of institutional confidence.

And so Chile has become the latest destination to witness a wave of far-right populism through Kast, who is an apologist for the Pinochet dictatorship. The lawyer and politician is echoing the campaign rhetoric of both Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and former US president Donald Trump.

Kast has vowed to restore social order and maintain the economic model that once made Chile prosperous. Long seen as one of the region’s most economically stable nations, today the country’s steep inequality is fracturing society.

"I think Kast is the least dangerous option for Chile – we have already experienced the horror that the extreme left can be," said Andreína Guillén, a Venezuelan commercial agent who has worked for 12 years for a multinational pharmaceutical company in Santiago.

"There are things to correct but we cannot ignore the country's progress in democracy. I'm afraid of the left," admits Hugo Pizarro, a 45-year-old Chilean bank official who said he will vote for Sichel.

 

Chaos vs. order 

Since 2019, an important part of Chile’s population of 19 million has supported demands for a state presence in social issues, better access to education and public healthcare h, and the changing the pension system.

But more violent expressions, such as vandalism and chaos at mass protests and extreme left-wing speeches, have fuelled the rise of the right in recent months. 

"It's like a kind of explosion of authoritarianism. Just as the left exploded through the social explosion, now comes the counter-reform, which is what happens in the great transformations of countries," said Lagos.

In her analysis, Lagos recalls that since the end of the dictatorship, "this authoritarianism has been there." In the 1990s, around 40 percent were thought to be Pinochet supporters, with the figure now thought to be closer to 20 percent.

Since 1999, all of Chile’s presidential elections have been decided in a run-off. The same is anticipated this time around.

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