The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Shaken by protests, battered by the coronavirus, a divided Chile picks a new president

Chilean presidential candidates, from left, Gabriel Boric, José Antonio Kast, Yasna Provoste, Sebastián Sichel, Eduardo Artés and Marco Enríquez-Ominami pose for a photo before a debate in Santiago on Monday. (Esteban Felix/AP)

SANTIAGO, Chile — The country has been rocked by some of Latin America’s largest protests. It was pummeled by the coronavirus. It is writing a new constitution. Its president this month narrowly evaded impeachment.

Now, after two years of tumult, Chile will choose a new leader. Heading into the presidential election on Sunday, the front-runners are presenting starkly different visions for the country.

Former lawmaker José Antonio Kast, a conservative populist who has expressed enthusiasm for the economic model of former dictator Augusto Pinochet, is running on law, order and spending cuts. Current lawmaker Gabriel Boric, a leftist former student leader, promises to promote feminism and fight climate change.

“This is one of the most important elections in a very long time,” said Verónica Figueroa Huencho, a professor of public affairs at the University of Chile. “It’s the first presidential vote to come after the protests erupted, and to a certain degree it will also mark the end of Chile’s long transition to democracy.”

Chile, seen as a development success story, erupted in protests in 2019 over cost-of-living pressures and the sense that the country’s economic gains had been shared unequally. Since the end of the dictatorship in 1990, mostly moderate governments have tiptoed through the delicate transition to democracy. But meager pensions and precarious social services pushed millions into the streets for the largest demonstrations of the democratic era.

The result was a convention to write a new constitution to replace the current Pinochet-era document.

Independent and leftist candidates swept the elections for delegates to the convention. But the broadly progressive wave washing over Chile is now under scrutiny.

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Public security, migration, post-pandemic recovery and contrasting social values have been key issues in the campaign.

“People are afraid of violence, crime and drug trafficking,” Kast said on a television show last weekend. “They want order and for the law to be followed.”

Kast, 55, who proudly declares himself “politically incorrect,” has run on pledges to cut taxes, trim the size and role of the government and eliminate several ministries.

Boric, 35, has focused on decentralization, feminism, climate change and dignified work.

“We will move toward the creation of a welfare state which doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor,” he declared in the final televised debate of the campaign.

Boric rose from student politics to Congress as a prominent member of the generation of protesters that in 2011 demanded free, high-quality education for all. His supporters are excited by the generational shift he represents.

“I’m going to vote for Boric because he’s the candidate who offers the greatest continuity between the 2019 protest movement, the constitutional process and the social changes underway in Chile,” said Francisca Hosiasson, a 30-year-old journalist. “Boric is also the most likely to push forward the environmental agenda that is so important for our future. And I don’t even want to imagine what Chile would be like under Kast.”

Chile leads the Western Hemisphere in vaccinations. The coronavirus is still surging.

The only woman running is the current leader of Chile’s Senate, centrist Yasna Provoste, 51. Sebastián Sichel, 44, a former government minister and banker, performed well in the final debate, presenting himself as a more moderate alternative to Kast.

The other candidates are communist Eduardo Artés, 70, businessman Franco Parisi, 54 — who is in the United States, having not set foot in Chile during the campaign — and socialist former lawmaker Marco Enríquez-Ominami, 48.

President Sebastián Piñera, a target of the protests, is not running. Chilean presidents may not be elected to consecutive terms.

If, as expected, no candidate wins an outright majority, a runoff between the two highest vote-getters will be held in December. Chileans also will elect a new Congress on Sunday.

Kast is a devout Catholic who opposes same-sex marriage and abortion in any case. He rejects the label “far-right,” describing himself instead as a “common sense” candidate. By focusing on security, migration and conservative social values, Kast has gathered support from across the Chilean right.

“I will vote for Kast because his program is the most adequate for Chile’s current predicament, as well as for the order and stability he can bring,” says Javier Ibáñez, a 34-year-old from the southern city of Concepción. “But the polarization of politics is worrying because it affects everyone — as well as the future development of the country.”

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That polarization has led some to compare the current moment to the 1989 referendum on Pinochet’s continued rule, which eventually secured Chile’s return to democracy. Others are unconvinced.

“I can’t see any comparison with the 1989 plebiscite myself,” said Luís Poblete, 63, a construction worker from Santiago who cast his vote against Pinochet 32 years ago. “People are far less motivated to vote in this election than they were back then.”

Poblete said that Chile under Kast would be “extreme.” He likened the far-right candidate to Brazilian firebrand Jair Bolsonaro. Kast has rejected comparisons with Bolsonaro or former president Donald Trump.

Chile, meanwhile, is undergoing something of a transformation.

“It used to be bad manners to talk about politics at the dinner table in Chile,” said Valentina Rosas, a political scientist at the Pontifical Catholic University in Santiago. “But it certainly isn’t anymore. What we saw in the plebiscite [on whether to draft a new constitution] was that participation picked up significantly — particularly among young people. And not just in the wealthier part of the country. It happened everywhere.”

Chile braces for constitutional referendum in the wake of violent clashes

Turnout for the first round of a presidential election in Chile has yet to exceed 50 percent since voting became voluntary in 2013. But turnout for the constitutional plebiscite last year was 50.9 percent.

The only demographic whose participation declined was older Chileans, possibly owing to the pandemic.

“This is the great unknown here,” Rosas said. “Whether these older people will come out in force alongside the more progressive, younger generation.”

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