Presidential Election Presents Divergent Paths for Chile’s Future

On Sunday, Chileans headed to the polls for the 2021 presidential, parliamentary, and regional elections. The frontrunners to replace President Sebastián Piñera are Gabriel Boric, 35, a former student movement leader representing the leftist Social Convergence Party and José Antonio Kast, 55, a conservative populist likened, in policy and practice, to former U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Centrist candidates Yasna Provoste, 51, the current leader of Chile’s Senate, and Sebastian Sichel, 44, a former government minister and banker, trailed Boric and Kast. Outliers included Eduardo Artés, 70, a communist, Franco Parisi, 54, a businessman based in the U.S., and Marco Enríquez-Ominami, 48, a socialist former lawmaker.

For much of the campaign, Boric held the lead, but the recent, sometimes-violent protests connected to the national “estallido social” (social outbreak) have boosted Kast’s popularity, particularly among more moderate and conservative Chileans. “I think there is a very important part of the country that’s tired, they don’t want any more of this,” Gonzalo Cordero, a political consultant and columnist for the national La Tercera newspaper, told Reuters. For this group, Kast’s law-and-order rhetoric with an emphasis on eliminating irregular migration and promoting conservative social values is appealing, as is his apparent embrace of the neoliberal “economic legacy” of former dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Conversely, for most of the younger generation, Boric – with his promotion of decentralization, climate change policy, and increased protections for women, workers, and indigenous groups – represents the path forward. “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,” journalist Francisca Hosiasson, 30, told the Washington Post.

Spurred by cost-of-living pressures and weak social safety nets, protests have erupted on and off since 2019. While this has led to a national consensus to rewrite the Pinochet-era constitution, it has also amplified the tensions between the political Left and Right, as John Bartlett explained in his Saturday article for the Post. Political violence has perpetuated polarization, which poses a risk to the possibility of future political cohesion. 

Nonetheless, the protest movement represents a significant shift in the political atmosphere of the last several decades. Politics are being played out on the streets, witnessed by all, rather than obscured in the halls of power occupied by the series of conservative-centrist governments in charge since the dictatorship ended in 1990. For this reason, the results of this presidential election will both cement Chile’s democratic transition and direct its path forward. As Verónica Figueroa, professor of public affairs at the University of Chile, emphasized to the Post, “This is one of the most important elections in a very long time.”

As of 6 p.m. on Sunday, when the ballots closed and 50 percent of the vote had been counted, Reuters reported that Kast was in the lead. Boric was close behind, followed by Parisi, Provoste, and Sichel. For presidential elections, Chile uses a two-round system. Therefore, if neither Kast nor Boric receives more than 50 percent of the vote once all counted, a second-round election will occur on 19 December 2021. This runoff will be highly competitive and the lead-up will necessitate that both candidates jockey to pick up voters and broaden their base. Given the context of heightened political participation and protest, what remains to be seen is how the public will respond once the next president is officially elected.