Chilean voters go from left wing to right wing in just two years

Second referendum in 15 months on new constitution, to be held this weekend, unlikely to heal deep divisions

Gabriel Boric made history when he got the most votes for head of state in Chilean history. Only two years later, polls show the nation is ready to abandon the president’s leftist coalition and back the conservative right.

That drastic change in sentiment is apparent in districts like Putaendo, a rural town of 17,000 people nestled between rolling hills about 100km north of Santiago. Historically a bastion of the left, its residents overwhelmingly backed Boric against conservative rival José Antonio Kast in 2021.

Katherine Astudillo, a 28-year-old mother of three, was one of them. She had hopes in Boric’s promises to fight inequality and redistribute wealth, but none of that has come to pass in her town: Putaendo is short of jobs and parts still lack access to basics such as drinking water. Astudillo says she rents out rooms in her house and labours as a seasonal fruit worker to make ends meet. To top it off, she’s increasingly worried about law and order.

“I regret voting for Boric,” Astudillo says. “Crime is on the rise.”


That frustration will influence how Chileans vote on Sunday in the nation’s second referendum on a new constitution in just over a year.

A leftist proposal failed in September, 2022, and the current, more conservative text hasn’t united impatient and angry voters either. More broadly, parties have failed to find common ground in order to address longstanding problems such as inequality and newer challenges like immigration. It seems voter disillusionment will persist regardless of Sunday’s outcome, which will leave the door open to future swings in coming elections.

All of that helped Kast’s Partido Republicano win over Putaendo’s fed-up community. His party’s candidates captured the highest number of votes among local residents to lead the current attempt to rewrite the constitution, securing support from 36.8 per cent of the town’s population, according to data from the government’s electoral office, Servel. That’s better than the 35.4 per cent it won nationally.

“There’s desperation among a significant number of Chileans who are looking for someone to solve their problems,” says Axel Callis, a sociologist and director of pollster “This is a democracy that doesn’t turn people’s demands into public policies. In this context, you have voters who go from one extreme to another, and who could seek out a completely new alternative.”

It’s those big and fast shifts that make it even harder to govern – and they’re happening elsewhere in the region. Colombia elected Gustavo Petro as the nation’s first leftist leader in 2022, but his popularity has waned as his key economic reforms have stalled. In Argentina, voters last month opted for radical change by electing libertarian outsider Javier Milei, who vowed to break from the once all-conquering Peronist movement and fix soaring inflation and a collapsing economy.

It’s all a sign of increased polarisation and the weakening of centrist, moderate politics. Economic growth will be near zero this year and unemployment is high.

“Chile is a country that tells you something about Latin America,” says Michael Shifter, a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue and professor of Latin American politics at Georgetown University. “Chile was the country that always was noted for its political class that was able to reach agreements. What the Boric period has demonstrated so far is that the country is incapable of reaching agreements.”

The changes in Chile have been head-spinning.

Just over a year ago, Boric forged ahead with plans to turn the country into “the grave” of neoliberalism. He backed a draft constitution with proposals such as gender parity in public institutions, a parallel justice system for indigenous communities and stronger protections for glaciers. Over 60 per cent of the population shot it down.

Fast-forward to 2023, and Boric has tempered his initial reform drive that fell out of sync with citizens who were more concerned with rising homicides, kidnappings, trans-border crime and immigration. His administration is now touting the biggest budget increase for public security in eight years while repeatedly vowing to go after criminals and expel undocumented migrants.

“They had it all, and then they lost it all,” Jose De Gregorio, a former central bank governor and current dean of the economics and business school at the Universidad de Chile, said in a speech in late November. “They ended up creating a government with fundamentals similar to those they criticised so much.”

Now, national surveys consistently show both Kast and Evelyn Matthei, a member of the right-wing Union Democrata Independiente, as the top contenders for the 2025 presidential election. Boric can’t run for a second consecutive term because of Chilean law, and possible contenders from his cabinet, including interior minister Carolina Toha and spokeswoman Camila Vallejo, are behind in the polls. Before that, next year’s local elections will serve as a litmus test for party strength.

“Part of the rise of Evelyn Matthei and Jose Antonio Kast stems from the issues that they have been emphasising for a long time,” says Cristobal Huneeus, the director of data science at data analysis firm Unholster. “There is a shift in the country toward their main concerns.”

Putaendo mayor Mauricio Quiroz agrees the right has been better at understanding public security fears. The number of foreigners residing in Chile in 2021 was double that in 2017, according to government data, with migration propelled by large-scale flows of undocumented workers fleeing poverty in countries including Venezuela. Polls show many Chileans link the arrival of foreigners to increases in crime.

Even still, the new constitutional draft spearheaded by right-wing party members is expected to fail in the referendum this weekend. Criticised for its divisiveness, it includes proposals that could further curtail limited abortion rights, as well as articles that would eliminate certain property taxes and guarantee the deportation of undocumented migrants as quickly as possible.

Its failure would only exacerbate rampant pessimism: Only 22 per cent of voters are optimistic about Chile’s future, according to a Cadem public opinion survey published in November. That’s the lowest level recorded since the pollster started asking that question in 2015.

“This would mean that the current Pinochet-era constitution would remain in place which, in turn, would increase the risk of renewed public discontent and protests further ahead,” according to Kimberley Sperrfechter, an emerging market economist at Capital Economics.

Back in Putaendo, inequality is on full display. Despite years of economic growth, higher life expectancy and reductions in poverty, Chile has one of the biggest gaps between rich and poor among nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Margarita Jamets, a Putaendo resident for nearly three decades, has been involved in an uphill battle to protect a canal that she and others depend on. Jamets, whose contract to provide cleaning services to a non-governmental organisation is set to expire in December, generates much-needed additional income off fruit trees that are grown on her property and nourished with water from the canal. Small, family farmers in the region have had to fight to avoid having water sources sold off to larger companies, she says.

“You practically have to go out and beg for help,” she says, pointing out that she and her neighbours have resorted to protests to get their viewpoints heard.

Amid the criticism, Boric’s administration reached across the aisle and implemented some policy proposals with support from opposition lawmakers. This year, it secured passage of a bill that will shorten the work week to 40 hours from 45 and increase taxes on copper producers in order to fund public programmes.

Meanwhile, the government has won investor praise by cutting spending as part of efforts to strengthen public accounts and tame inflation, which has eased from a three-decade high of 14.1 per cent to 4.8 per cent now, providing relief to families and businesses alike. Foreign direct investment is increasing as the administration lures business to new industries such as lithium.

Companies breathed a sigh of relief when voters rejected last year’s proposed constitution, but are still eager for a definitive end to uncertainty over the country’s basic laws. Total investment in Chile has declined on a yearly basis for three of the past four quarters, according to data from the central bank, while business confidence remains at historically low levels.

The mood in Chile is even worse than in late 2019, when protests over higher subway fares exploded into the most violent unrest in a generation. That upheaval sparked the current drive to rewrite Chile’s basic laws, fuelling uncertainty and jeopardising the country’s reputation for stability and ease of doing business.

On a Friday afternoon in Putaendo’s main square, customers come in drips and drabs to Bernardita Lepe’s stand, where she sells snacks and drinks. Friendly and direct, Lepe says her job gives her a good idea of the comings and goings in town, and she minces no words when it comes to politics.

In a gush of frustration, she seethes that last year’s constitutional rewrite was a joke that profoundly disappointed voters, and criticices Boric’s administration for not making good on promises to improve living standards.

As she works to make ends meet, Lepe says she’s tired of having to meet demands to pay taxes without seeing politicians use the money for improvements in the town.

“The town is tired and fed up,” Lepe says. “Everyone is making a change. What you’re seeing is a punishment vote.” – Bloomberg