SANTIAGO, Chile – Two outside candidates coming from opposite extremes of the political spectrum took the lead early in Chile’s presidential election choice Sunday after a bruising campaign that exposed deep social tensions in the region’s most economically advanced country.
With just under 4% of polling stations reporting results, most from Chilean embassies abroad, right-wing extremist lawmaker José Antonio Kast had 29% support compared to 25% for former student protest leader Gabriel Boric. If none of the candidates secures a majority of 50%, the two tops will compete in a round on 19 December.
Polls before the election point to a large number of uncertain voters but have consistently favored Boric and Kast in the field of seven candidates. Chile’s entire 155-seat lower house in Congress and about half the Senate are also to be won.
Boric, 35, would become Chile’s youngest modern president. He was among several student activists elected to Congress in 2014 after leading protests for higher quality education. As head of a broad alliance that includes the Chilean Communist Party, he says if elected he will raise taxes on the “super rich” to expand social services and increase the protection of environment.
He has also promised to eliminate the country’s private pension system – one of the hallmarks of the free market reforms introduced in the 1980s by General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.
Kast, 55, from the newly formed Republican Party, came from the far right after winning less than 8% of the vote in 2017 as an independent. But he has steadily risen in opinion polls this time with a divisive discourse emphasizing conservative family values and attacking migrants – many from Haiti and Venezuela – he blames on crime.
Kast, an ardent Roman Catholic and father of nine, has also targeted outgoing President Sebastian Pinera for allegedly betraying the economic legacy of Pinochet, whom his brother helped implement as the dictator’s central bank president.
The winner will take over a country in the grip of major change but uncertain about its future course after decades of centrist reforms that largely left Pinochet’s economic model untouched.
Turnout seemed to be high on Sunday, with several polling stations having to stay open after 6pm to receive late voters who are still queuing.
“There are more people than other times because we are all tired of this,” said 55-year-old Marie Arias, who was waiting in a long line to vote.
Teresa Mardones, 60, said she has usually voted for the left, “but the insecurity that Chile is experiencing has forced me to vote for Kast.”
But Francisco Venegas, 50, said he had chosen Boric because “we have to change everything and take a risk.”
Pina’s decision to raise subway prices in 2019 sparked months of massive protests that quickly spiraled into a nationwide demand for more accessible public services, revealing the declining foundations of Chile’s “economic miracle.”
Severely weakened by the unrest, Pinera reluctantly agreed to a referendum on rewriting the constitution of the Pinochet era. In May, the congregation tasked with drafting the new magna carta was elected and is expected to complete its work sometime next year.
At the same time, as a new sign of the tensions that Pinera will leave behind, the billionaire’s president was brought before a lower court before he avoided being ousted by the Senate due to an offshore deal where his family sold his stake in a mining project a decade ago. served the first of two non-consecutive terms.
Goodman reported from Miami