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Newspapers showing the results of the first round of the Chilean presidential election are displayed in Santiago on November 22, 2021

Newspapers showing the results of the first round of the Chilean presidential election are displayed in Santiago on November 22, 2021. (Photo: Ernesto Benavides/AFP via Getty Images)

Far-Right Candidate Surges to Win Runoff Spot in Chilean Presidential Election

A new poll shows far-right candidate José Antonio Kast and left-wing reformer Gabriel Boric tied at 39% ahead of next month's runoff, prompting one observer to note that "there is no time for defeatism when barbarism is knocking at your door."

Kenny Stancil

Far-right presidential candidate José Antonio Kast surged to victory in the first round of Chile's election on Sunday, securing 28% of the vote and setting up a December runoff versus leftist runner-up Gabriel Boric, who garnered 26% of the ballots cast.

The two candidates could hardly be more different. Kast, a 55-year-old former congressman and supporter of deceased military dictator Augusto Pinochet—who forcibly imposed neoliberal reforms after deposing democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende in a bloody U.S.-backed coup on September 11, 1973—has drawn comparisons to other right-wing authoritarians, including Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Throughout his reactionary campaign, Kast, a Catholic opponent of abortion and marriage equality, has vowed to crack down on crime and migration, calling for the creation of a vast ditch to deter would-be immigrants.

Congressman Boric, on the other hand, rose to prominence as a key leader, alongside fellow lawmakers Camila Vallejo and Giorgio Jackson, of the 2011 student movement for free, quality public higher education. 

The 35-year-old progressive has advocated for a recovery from the coronavirus crisis that curbs inequality and environmental degradation, with a focus on expanding and improving the Chilean welfare state—underdeveloped and highly privatized since the Pinochet-era interventions of the Chicago Boys, a group of market fundamentalist economists trained by Milton Friedman and others.

Since no candidate won an outright majority, Kast of the far-right Republican Party and Boric of the left-wing Broad Front will face off again on December 19.

Current right-wing President Sebastián Piñera—whose previous stint in office, from 2010 to 2014, coincided with the nationwide student movement of which Boric was a leader—was prohibited by law from seeking a consecutive term.

In a worrisome sign for Boric ahead of next month's runoff, the losing center-right candidates—including businessman and celebrity economist Franco Parisi, who conducted his entire campaign from the U.S. without ever stepping foot in Chile, and Sebastian Sichel—fared better than their left-leaning counterparts, such as Yasna Provoste.

Congress was also at play this past weekend, with the right regaining control of the Senate, as Reuters reported:

Also up for grabs on Sunday night were all 155 seats in Chile's lower house, 27 of the 50 seats in the country's upper house and all positions in the nation's 16 regional councils.

Lawmakers from hard-right and conservative coalitions looked on course to finish the night with 23 seats in the Senate, while lawmakers from center-left and hard-left coalitions seemed set to finish with 22 seats. The remaining five seats went to independents unaffiliated with any major political coalition.

Chilean pesos and stocks soared in the wake of the right's resurgence, Bloomberg News reported. The news outlet noted, however, that the next round of the election remains wide open: "A poll conducted by Cadem between November 19 and 21 and released Monday showed Kast and Boric tied at 39% in a runoff scenario."

David Adler, general coordinator of Progressive International, which sent delegates to Chile to observe the election, warned that Kast's supporters—taking a page out of "the new authoritarian playbook" deployed by Trump and Bolsonaro—have preemptively attacked Chile's electoral service in an effort "to sow distrust in democratic institutions and pave the way for false claims of fraud" if Boric wins next month.

The right's solid performance on Sunday—including Kast's victory as well as the number of ballots cast for other conservatives—was inconsistent with Chile's recent political trajectory.

The social-democratic platform of Boric, who led the race comfortably until Kast weaponized anti-immigrant sentiment a month ago, is more closely aligned with the popular desire in Chile for a new constitution that guarantees universal access to public goods.

Pinochet's neoliberal constitution, which was enshrined in 1980 under anti-democratic circumstances and remains intact more than three decades after the end of his military junta, has proven to be a major obstacle to egalitarian reforms.

Due to a sustained wave of social unrest, which exploded in October 2019 following a transit fare hike but that Chileans insist was sparked by 30 years of post-dictatorship austerity rather than 30 pesos, Piñera was forced to schedule a plebiscite to let citizens decide whether to rewrite the nation's constitution; but not before his government violently repressed protestors, killing 36 individuals and blinding hundreds of others.

After the referendum was postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Chileans last October voted by a margin of 4-to-1 to draft a new constitution. And in another vote this May, they elected a progressive slate of delegates to the constituent assembly tasked with rewriting Pinochet's constitution, raising hopes that the citizen-led body will produce an emancipatory charter.

In contrast to the October 2020 referendum, during which working-class voters enthusiastically showed up to the polls, participation on Sunday was below 50%.

"Abstention is often high in Chile," The Guardian reported. "Since voting became voluntary in 2013, the first round of a presidential election has never had a turnout of more than half of registered voters."

Boric's electoral fate will depend in large part on the extent to which his campaign is able to persuade the millions of Chileans who recently demanded a more democratic governing document to support him in next month's runoff.

Melany Cruz, a lecturer in International Politics at the University of Leicester, argued Monday in Tribune magazine that "progressive forces have failed to address some of the dominant narratives broadcast by Kast, particularly issues related to security, criminality, and law and order."

Kast's "speech on Sunday was framed in terms of ideas of 'freedom' [from communism], 'peace' [from Mapuche people], and 'order' [from migrants]," Cruz noted. "But the message was presented to appeal to deeper feelings of insecurity and fear created by neoliberalism—something that fascists and ultra-nationalists have used before."

"The management of fear is a powerful tool," wrote Cruz. "Fear of communism, fear of terrorism, fear of migrants, fear of the other, as a repetitive discourse has successfully turned discontent with social and economic injustices toward the reorganization of repressive and regressive powers deeply entrenched in the traditional national elite."

"The left," she added, "needs to address those concerns and issues upfront. Recognition that Chileans are not naturally progressive on questions of immigration, women's rights, and wealth distribution could allow them to break through the reticence that some have against their progressive project. Addressing the fears head on may be the only solution, because there is no time for defeatism when barbarism is knocking at your door."

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