Chileans will cast their votes for president on Sunday in an unusually polarized election, the themes of which will be familiar to anyone whose country has been wracked by the pandemic, social unrest, inequality, and heated disagreements over immigration. The choice is a stark reflection of two major but clashing responses to everything from the sweeping social protests that broke out across the country in October 2019 to the pandemic’s crushing effects. On the one hand there’s a jingoistic “law-and-order” appeal to crushing social unrest and vandalism and dissent, and on the other, a movement to dismantle extreme income inequality, address ecological issues, and transform the economy. A runoff will take place on Dec. 19 if no candidate wins a majority in the first round. Leading on the left is Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old from Punta Arenas, the southernmost city in Chile, who came to prominence as a leader of Chile’s 2011 student protests alongside a few other young and powerful politicians including Giorgio Jackson and Camila Vallejo. Boric’s platform includes subsidies for care work, raising taxes on corporations and select industries, aggressively combating income inequality (Chile has the highest among OECD developed nations), and dismantling much of the economic model Chile is famous for, including its privatized pension system. “If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave,” he has said.
Leading on the right is José Antonio Kast, a member of the extreme far right who opposes marriage equality, supports the military and militarized police, claims maternal mortality is higher in countries that permit abortion, and wants to keep migrants out—particularly those from Haiti and Venezuela—by digging an enormous ditch. He favors intensifying Pinochet’s economic model and his ambitions to be president were considered laughable as recently as 2017, when he ran as an independent and claimed that Augusto Pinochet would vote for him if he were living.
Things have changed. Kast, who is frequently compared to Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and sometimes to Trump, now enjoys a fervid online fan base. His candidacy has developed real last-minute momentum for reasons some Chilean analysts associate with the protests and others with immigration. As of the last official poll (Chile bans polling for two weeks before the election), Kast, who’d been straggling for months, had pulled ahead of moderate right-wing candidate Sebastián Sichel. He was even polling ahead of Boric—by one precarious point.
Boric vs. Kast was not the shape anyone expected this particular race to take. The Chilean primaries consisted of two official coalitions, and long story short, the original polling leader on the left unexpectedly receded, while the clear winner of the right’s primary was Sichel, a former Cabinet minister and former Christian Democrat who sports a tattoo of a trout on his forearm.
At this point, the choice seemed to be between a surprising upstart leftist and a moderate. Sichel is, by Chilean standards, a member of the center-right. While he vocally opposed letting Chileans keep withdrawing from their pension plans during the pandemic in order to stay afloat economically, he supports same-sex marriage and his policies include cash transfers to battle income inequality and tax relief for poor and middle-class Chileans. But in early October, CNN Chile’s Daniel Matamala reported that Sichel had in 2009 financed a failed campaign for Congress with improper contributions from fisheries. That, in combination with some political missteps, contributed to a perfect storm that all but tanked his candidacy. These struck me as relatively mild scandals at the time. I asked Matamala why he thought Sichel sank so easily, facilitating Kast’s rise. “Sichel comes from the [center-left] Concertación. He’s only a recent arrival to the right. Kast, on the other hand, has spent his entire life with the UDI [the conservative Independent Democratic Union]. He has many personal ties,” Matamala said. “For many people on the right—the parties, the congress—it didn’t take much for them to switch over because they didn’t experience Sichel as someone who was authentically their candidate.”
And so Kast—who founded his own political party, the Chilean Republican Party, in 2019—started rising in the polls as an alternative to the conservative status quo. His rise may have been fueled by public backlash to this year’s anniversary of the Oct. 18, 2019 protests, which brought with it a resurgence of protests, vandalism, and social unrest (at a time when Chileans exhausted by the pandemic are reporting feeling extraordinarily anxious and insecure). Matamala disputes this analysis, pointing out that this year’s anniversary was far less violent than 2020’s, “and that was one week before the plebiscite to approve or reject a new Constitution.” Matamala’s point is that everyone predicted in 2020 that a populace exhausted by violent protests would reject the proposal for a new Constitution in the elections a week later. But the left won, by a whopping 78 percent to 22 percent.
Another factor fueling Kast’s ascent is rising anti-immigrant sentiment. The number of non-Chileans living in the country—an estimated 1.5 million in a country of 19 million, many of them refugees from Venezuela and Haiti—more than tripled between 2014 and the end of 2019. This has inspired ugly protests on the right: In late September, 3,000 people in Iquique, a northern port city, gathered to protest the camps of undocumented Venezuelans. They sang the Chilean national anthem, chanted that the Chilean republic would be respected, and made bonfires in which some protesters burned the belongings of migrants and children including tents, mattresses, blankets, and toys.
This is shaping up, in short, to be a referendum on how Chileans wish to respond, morally and practically, to crisis: with major backlash or with major reform. For the last year or so, people have been broadly voting for reform. The ongoing Constitutional Convention is arguably one such referendum. The left also won the May elections that determined the composition for the Constitutional Assembly. The result is strikingly progressive, featuring an equal number of men and women, reserving 17 of the 155 seats for indigenous Chileans. It is headed by Elisa Loncón, a Mapuche woman, who was elected president of the Constitutional Convention. The referendum was a rout for the conservative president, Sebastian Piñera.
It’s not hard to imagine how those sweeping results might now be fueling a backlash among conservative Chileans, especially those—and they are not that small a group—who look back fondly on the Pinochet years as serene and orderly. And who see Boric as a dangerous Communist (Chile’s Communist Party does support Boric’s candidacy, though he has disagreed with that party’s position on matters ranging from Cuba to Nicaragua.)
Members of the left are horrified by Kast though many express feeling vindicated by his rise, noting that the professed “moderation” of the Chilean right that once supported the dictatorship was always more mask than substance. Kast has denied ever saying he supported Pinochet, but he believes in the military, being tough on crime, and “traditional family values.” He blames the October protests on a shady conspiracy by Venezuelans, and for all that he claims to be against human rights abuses, Kast made a point of visiting at least two officers accused of human rights abuses and blinding protesters—and kept in touch with their families. There isn’t much doubt as to how a Kast presidency would treat Chileans who protest. Or refugees: He has made hunting down illegal migrants a prominent part of his platform.
John Bartlett, a reporter for the Guardian, told me a Kast presidency would effectively halt the country’s progressive movement. “It would be regressive, what with Kast being such an open proponent of the dictatorship and its model. I think we’re talking about things from the past that Chile seemed at one point, two years ago, to finally be coming to terms with and reckoning with, going away.”
It would have been easy, even as recently as two weeks ago, to say that Chile was breaking down into the polarized camps we are all too familiar with here in the United States: retrenchment in a bizarre 1950s fantasy of an orderly past predicated on repression and retrograde values, or Bernie Sanders-style progressivism that genuinely spooks the powers that be into shutting it down. The echoes are real—the lower house of Congress even impeached the president, failing to secure a conviction in the Senate. Back in October 2020, when the Constitutional Referendum took place, conservative Chileans in rich areas objected to it by flying Confederate flags (yes those Confederate flags) and wielding “Make Chile Great Again” placards.
But then, in the final presidential debate, the conservative moderate, Sichel, made a small but distinct comeback. It took place Monday and was by most accounts it was a disaster for Kast, who lacked his usual polish and confidence and made a number of strange unforced errors. Asked about gender issues, he said he’d hoped to discuss matters of actual importance. He openly contradicted published parts of his platform. And when journalist and moderator Macarena Pizarro asked him about his policy of only offering certain government benefits to married couples, noting that 25 percent of mothers are single, Kast’s response was: “Are you married?”
“I’m divorced,” she replied, “but I don’t think that carries any importance for this debate,” she said. The moment went viral.
The consensus, even among Boric supporters, was that Sichel, of all people—the official candidate of the right, whose candidacy seemed doomed—had re-emerged as the clear winner of the debate. Matamala told me the debate dealt Kast some damage partly because “he was coming from a campaign which, until just a few days before the debate, hadn’t made mistakes. His image was of someone who doesn’t err, who’s bulletproof.” That image only highlighted the peculiar weakness of his performance, and before a large audience, too. All four main TV networks aired the debate.
Whether that debate changed enough minds to stave off a Kast presidency is anyone’s guess. It’s possible that at least some centrist conservatives who were leaning toward Kast might be reconsidering their votes. Marcela Cubillos, a far-right politician who opposed the Constitutional Convention but has now been elected to it as a conservative member, openly praised and effectively endorsed Sichel in the aftermath. “After this debate it is clear that Sebastián Sichel is the only one who could build a majority that would allow us to defeat the left in the second round,” she said. She was roundly attacked by Kast’s supporters but maintains that Kast is too controversial and has no room to grow, that he’ll hit his electoral ceiling with the first round of votes. But rumors of conservatives in disarray might be exaggerated, and so might Sichel’s resurrection. As Matamala put it: “If you walk down the streets and see the posters for candidates running for senator or congressman, no one has posters with Sichel. The name they’re sharing space with is Kast’s.”