Chile headed for divisive presidential race as far-right outsider tops poll

Ultra-conservative candidate has denied Pinochet regime was a dictatorship

Chile has become the latest South American country to see its politics become more polarised after voters on Sunday turned their backs on the traditional blocs of centre-right and left that have run it for the last 30 years.

After decades of stability that was the envy of the region, next month’s presidential election run-off will see a far-right outsider pitted against a former student protest leader heading up a new leftist alliance.

Following a surge in recent weeks, former congressman José Antonio Kast topped Sunday's poll, giving the country's far-right its first realistic chance of returning to power since the ousting of former dictator Augusto Pinochet. An ultra-conservative opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage, Mr Kast has denied that the Pinochet regime, which murdered or disappeared more than 3,000 people, was a dictatorship.

Ageing leadership

In the final round, which takes place on December 19th, he will face 35-year old Gabriel Boric, whose progressive Broad Front coalition was founded in 2017 by groups frustrated at the ageing leadership of the traditional centre-left bloc that had dominated the country's politics since Pinochet was forced out of power in 1990.


Previously, polls had shown Mr Boric likely to win a run-off against Mr Kast, but in the first round the combined right-wing vote topped that of centre and left-wing candidates, making the anti-immigrant demagogue the new front-runner.

Mr Kast has positioned himself as the only candidate tough on law and order, which has appealed to many voters put off by the street unrest and political instability that followed a wave of protests in 2019 whose aftershocks have continued to cause disturbances. An assembly elected in response to the protests is currently at work drawing up a new constitution to replace the current document, which dates back to the Pinochet era. Mr Kast has opposed the process.

Social discontent

Mr Boric in contrast is promising to tackle the social discontent at persistent inequality that sparked off the 2019 protests. He has vowed to expand social welfare coverage, increase the role of the state in the economy and strengthen environmental and indigenous rights.

But in a speech to supporters on Sunday night he recognised that many Chileans are concerned about proposals to make major changes to what has been for decades the continent’s stand-out economic performer. “We have to work without rest or pause to reach those who didn’t vote for us because they feel legitimate doubts about our project,” he said.

After securing their run-off berths, both Mr Kast and Mr Boric quickly turned to trying to win endorsements from those candidates eliminated on Sunday. Crucial to deciding the contest could be the voters of another outsider who did surprisingly well, third-placed Franco Parisi. An economist based in the United States, he ran remotely from Alabama where he lives. He failed to return once during the campaign to Chile, where he is being pursued in the courts by his ex-wife for non-payment of alimony for their two children.

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan is a contributor to The Irish Times based in South America