Presidential Election: The battle for the soul of Chile

Kast and Boric had secured 28 and 25.7 per cent of the popular votes respectively – far short of the 50 per cent required to win the presidential bout – in the first round held in November.

Chilean presidential candidate Jose Antonio Kast
Chilean presidential candidate Jose Antonio Kast. (Photo source: Reuters)

By Abdul Nafey & Devika Misra

Chile is balanced on a razor’s edge. The top two contenders, the neoliberal, social conservative Antonio Kast and Gabriel Boric, a progressive social democrat, are slugging it out for victory in the second-round of presidential election, scheduled for 19 December 2021.

Kast and Boric had secured 28 and 25.7 per cent of the popular votes respectively – far short of the 50 per cent required to win the presidential bout – in the first round held in November. Turnout was low at 47 per cent – surprising, given the fact that after a nation-wide social outburst, Chile is writing a new constitution. The remaining 46 per cent of the votes had gone to other candidates.

Sunday’s battle at the hustings is for the centre of Chilean politics. Turnout is forecast to remain low again which makes the contest somewhat intriguing. Boric has a slight edge. Yasna Provoste who had secured 11.6 per cent of the votes has endorsed his candidacy. The New Social Pact, the centre-left coalition, was in power for most of the 1990-2018 period. Boric has also received the support of the democratic socialist Marco Enriques Ominami (7.6% of popular votes). An admirer of North Korea, the Marxist-Leninist Eduardo Artes (1.5%) has declined to endorse but his supporters are likely to vote for Boric.

Kast has narrowed the gap with some handy support from the ruling centre-right coalition, Vamos por Chile. President Sebastian Pinera’s candidate Sebastian Sichell managed barely 12.7 per cent of the popular votes in the first round. A populist-conservative otherwise, Franco Parisi had campaigned on an anti-system platform, securing 12.9% of the popular vote. Campaigning online from the US, Parisi drew good support from the disaffected, particularly in the Antofagasta mining region in the north. The copper-producing region feels alienated from the distant Santiago where power and wealth are concentrated. His support base appears to be split between Kast and Boric.

Kast is shifting so as to draw support of the political middle. The neoliberal, who champions law and order and tax breaks is assuring that his economic plans are “not set in stone”. He has diluted his stance on privatization of Codelco – the state-owned copper monopoly. The social conservative remains vehemently anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ rights. On his part, Boric has assured private business that economic change would only be gradual. He is offering social safety net, pension reforms, women’s rights, and an increase in mining royalties and wealth tax.

The Sunday election has turned into a fight between ‘hope’ and ‘fear’. Social media is in full swing portraying Boric as ‘communist’ – a la another Salvador Allende. Kast engenders fear, particularly among women. He is an ardent believer in patriarchy and women inequality in marriage. He has promised to abolish the women’s ministry. He is an admirer of the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-90). Revelation that his father Michael Kast was member of the German Nazi party may not have helped his cause.

A higher turn-out would help Boric. He is targeting the apathetic and those in the middle. The generational dynamic is on: voters above 50 tend to favour Kast; those below 30 are mostly with Boric. All presidential elections since 1990 have been decided in the second-round. But the dominant centre-right and centre-left coalitions which have ruled Chile since ‘transition’ to democracy in 1990 are not in fray. Long-established parties seem to have hollowed out.

It is more than a presidential election. It is a battle for the soul of Chile. The country is in the throes of writing a new constitution. For two years, Chileans railed against the neoliberal order that has worked only for the powerful and the wealthy. Augusto Pinochet enshrined the free-market ideas of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek into the constitution. The 1980 Constitution envisages the state as the tool to maintain order and facilitate the functioning of the market. It has promoted subsidiarity of state in the name of decentralization and efficiency. Education, healthcare, pension, land, water, cost of goods and services – anything that touches the social is in private hands. The Constitution recognizes ‘freedoms’, not ‘rights’; for instance, one is free to pursue higher education provided one pays for it. There are no rights for the indigenous communities; here, all are ‘Chileans’ – and that’s it.

The serial protests that began with a hike in metro fare turned into the ‘social outburst’ (Estallido Social). On 25 October 2019, over 1.2 million Chileans had converged in Santiago to protest against social inequality. In what came to be called “the biggest march of Chile”, Chileans demanded a new social pact where the state would uphold citizenship rights against the free run of a market economy. Had it not been for the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic which halted the protests, the ‘outburst’ could have produced either the overthrow of the present system or a military coup.

Chile’s political class and the conservative sections of the society saw the writing on the wall. A popular referendum was held in October 2020 which asked two questions: (i) Do you want a new constitution? (ii) And if yes, who should write it? A combination of parliament members and popularly-elected members; or exclusively popularly-elected members. The verdict was unambiguous: 78% of the Chileans said ‘Yes’ for a new constitution; & 79% wanted it to be written by an exclusively popularly elected body. More women, then men, had spearheaded the protest. Chile is writing the first ever constitution in the world where half of the constituent assembly members are women. If approved in a new referendum next year, the new constitution would mark the dawn of a new social pact in Chile.

The next president would oversee the transition to a new constitutional and political order. What Chileans are looking for is a constitution that would promote inclusive growth – a market economy with social protection, a plurinational identity, gender justice and, of course, social protection. Boric has lent support for a new constitution; conservatives, including Antonio Kast and President Sebastian Pinera, remain opposed to replacing the old neoliberal document. Sunday’s vote will decide where to Chile goes from here? The battle for the soul of Chile rages on.

(*Abdul Nafey, retired as professor of Latin American Studies from the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

** Devika Misra is a specialist in Latin American regionalism and regional integration. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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