Chileans vote today between two presidential candidates: one that could be the most radical leftist since Salvador Allende or another easily as reactionary as far-right dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The outcome of this contest’s stark contrast between left-wing Gabriel Boric of the Social Convergence Party and José Antonio Kast of the Republican Party — a name inspired by the United States’ GOP — will have impacts beyond Chile. The viability of Chile’s major recent upheavals against neoliberalism, including the social uprising in 2019 that sparked the election of a constituent assembly to replace the dictatorship-era constitution, is being tested in this race. Whichever side wins will likely carry momentum into upcoming regional elections elsewhere in Latin America, like Colombia’s and Brazil’s presidential contests next year.
The two second-round presidential candidates are both out of the Chilean mainstream and in relatively new political parties, but the similarities end there. Boric is a thirty-five-year-old former student leader who rose to prominence during the Chilean Winter, a 2011–13 youth uprising against neoliberal education reform that culminated in the last decade with him and other young leftists in the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) coalition winning congressional office alongside more historic left parties. Boric’s coalition, Apruebo Dignidad (Approve Dignity) has deep ties to popular movements new and old.
Kast, two decades Boric’s senior, is the son of a former German officer with ties to the Nazi Party. The ultraright-winger was the only major presidential candidate to stand against the constitutional process and has continued to oppose abortion, gender, and sexual rights while Chile liberalized laws on issues like same-sex marriage.
These two candidates have opposing visions for Chile: Boric’s program might, in the short term, move the country toward social democracy, while Kast’s could send Chile back to Pinochet-era repression. But reading the US media, you’d think both were equally dangerous. As Ari Paul summed up in FAIR, mainstream American journalists have created a false equivalency between the two, where each takes the country down a different but equally destructive path.
A major reason Chileans have these two options today is that the first round of the presidential election in November demonstrated the collapse of the historic center-left and center-right blocs. Since the return to democracy around 1990, Chile has been governed by two coalitions made up of the Christian Democrats, social democratic parties, and, rarely, the Communist Party or two mainstream right-wing parties. Last month, these two coalitions finished not only behind Boric and Kast but also behind Franco Parisi — a newcomer excluded from the debates, partly due to him living in Alabama. (Some suspect he has not returned to Chile to avoid revealing his assets.) His vote total mostly reflects a protest against the status quo, but also demonstrates the lack of faith voters have in the former governing coalitions after thirty years.
Of the seven candidates who ran in November, the right-wing contenders held a slight majority of the votes in the first round. Still, despite the disappointing results, there is a strong chance for Boric to win today. He has received the open support of the center-left parties and other major progressive candidates. Kast’s hard-right positions are now under more scrutiny and have weakened his support. Boric can consolidate the left-wing votes among those committed to the constitutional process and those fearful of a return to Pinochet-era repression, winning a majority that escaped him before.
Boric continues to slightly best Kast in the polls as well. While these surveys can be unreliable, they did accurately predict Kast would take a slight lead in the first round. As polling becomes somewhat unpredictable as fewer and fewer potential voters respond to calls, neither side is too confident it can rely on surveys for an accurate level of support. In this election, as the saying goes, the only poll that matters is on election day.
The axiom is more relevant given that Chile bans releasing of public polling about two weeks before the presidential vote. In my time in Santiago as the official Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) representative among international observers, I have met with traditional left parties and the newer ones, all of which are supporting Boric. (DSA recently issued a statement in support of Apruebo Dignidad.) Those who are still receiving internal polling have said that the race is neck and neck.
Chilean law also prohibits electioneering in the forty-eight hours before election day starts. On Thursday, both campaigns held closing campaign rallies to demonstrate support across the country. Boric’s Santiago rally was estimated by Frente Amplio to have tens of thousands in attendance who came to hear not just him but famous Chilean musicians such as Ana Tijoux and Illapu, plus elected leaders such as Santiago’s young Communist mayor Irací Hassler Jacob. The event had a rock concert atmosphere; Kast’s closing events, meanwhile, were much smaller.
The large crowd was notable, as the first round’s closing campaign rallies were much tinier in comparison, according to people close to the races, with some events last November only reaching several hundred militants. The hope is that this surge demonstrates, at the very least, an uptick in youth enthusiasm to vote. In such a tight race, neither side can afford to lose any votes, and young people turning out could swing the election in favor of Boric.
Coincidentally, also on Thursday, Pinochet’s infamous widow and money launderer María Lucía Hiriart Rodríguez died at age ninety-nine. Kast has used the opportunity to attack those celebrating her death as a threat to security. At Plaza Dignidad, I saw firsthand the gathering of nearly a thousand people to cheer her passing. Shortly afterward, the police closed the streets. It is the same playbook everywhere: a few protesters can lead to a massive police overreaction and the right wing taking advantage to play on some of the public’s concerns about security.
These dynamics matter in such a close contest. If Kast can play on the public’s fears, real and manufactured, he can pull through. Boric will need a base that goes beyond those fearful of a return to Pinochet-era rule in order to win. This is doubly true as Kast’s supporters are now adopting the Donald Trump playbook, pledging to challenge the election results in the final days if Kast doesn’t win.
Whoever wins today will not find governing easy. Congress, whose elections were set last month, is nearly evenly divided. The constitutional process continues and will be up for another plebiscite. While Boric will likely not face the street protests that Kast may, he will need to find a way to resolve the issue of pardoning political prisoners currently in jail, and work with a national police force he is seeking to reform and a military not known for its commitment to democracy. Kast’s illiberal democratic efforts will undoubtedly be met with serious resistance, both electorally and through movements beyond the Left.
No matter the victor, only the Chilean people will determine their future. Their choice truly is between democracy and authoritarianism, socialism and barbarism.