“This is the first time I will vote for a right-wing candidate. I consider myself a leftist, but today I am 100% sure I will go for José Antonio Kast,” said Rodrigo Álvarez, a 48-old sociologist and public administrator, referring to Chile’s far right presidential candidate, a long-time conservative politician and defender of former dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime.
“I want Chile to get back in order, the migrant crisis is out of control, we need more economic stability, and to stop the violence we´re still seeing two years after the social uprising. The only candidate who clearly says he will straighten things up is him,” he adds.
This Sunday, Chileans will head to the polls to elect their new president. Voters will pick one out of seven candidates; if none of them reaches the absolute majority there would be a runoff in December to choose between the top two runners.
This election comes two years after massive protests and riots shook the country in October 2019, with protesters demanding better pensions, better education, and the end of an economic system that they said favors the elite. The unrest led now-outgoing President Sebastián Piñera to agree to a plebiscite about the need to change the constitution inherited from the dictatorship – a year later, Chileans overwhelmingly voted to draft a new constitution.
But Chile still hasn’t regained the stability for which it was once known. Brutal clashes between protesters and security forces continue weekly in Santiago. Violence has also stricken parts of the country’s south, where the government says drug traffickers took advantage of the state´s conflict with Indigenous communities to gain control.
Like many countries, Chile’s economy also slowed during the pandemic, prompting Congress to approve successive withdrawals from private pension funds. The pension system is a legacy from the military regime and credited by many businesses and economists as the foundation of the country´s strong capital markets; others, however, define the private pension system as a symbol of inequality. The turmoil has had a negative impact on the financial system and increasing inflation.
Considering the 2019 political upheaval, Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old leftist congressman and former student leader has been widely perceived as the presidential candidate who better represents the country’s social movement. He runs for a broad coalition that champions a welfare state model and that includes the Communist Party.
In the past few weeks, however, the situation has changed, reflecting increasing political polarization in Chile.
Many Chileans are moving to support Kast – a staunch defender of private property, who wants to reduce the size of the state, lower corporate taxes and focalize social policies – allowing him to register an unexpected spike in the polls.
Kast’s surging popularity comes as something of a surprise after he opposed the creation of a new constitution and the election of a constituent assembly in May favored a left-leaning majority. But experts say it’s part of a new trend in politics across the world: the expression of a frustrated middle class, distrustful of traditional parties and institutions, looking for more stability.
“I see this as part of the global penetration of a populist speech similar to Jair Bolsonaro´s in Brazil and Donald Trump´s in the USA,” says Cristóbal Bellolio, a doctor in Political Philosophy and assistant professor at the Universidad Adolfo Ibañez in Santiago.
“They have an anti-globalist message and promote the exaltation of patriotic values that seem threatened by the left´s drive to drastically change everything. We are seeing a Chilean interpretation of the Make America Great Again,” he adds.
A ‘new right’ for Chile
José Antonio Kast, a 55-year-old lawyer and former congressman, was a member of the Unión Democrática Independiente (UDI), Chile’s most conservative party, before deciding to run independently in the 2017 presidential election. Less than 8% of the voters supported him, but he created his own party a year later and decided to try again.
A fervent Catholic and father of nine, he comes from a family of entrepreneurs of German descent. One of his brothers held several ministerial positions during Pinochet’s infamous regime. In the introduction to his political platform, Kast presents himself as the potential leader of a “new right” centered on three pillars: freedom, the defense of law and order, and the strength of family.
Kast’s proposals include a tax cut for companies, building barriers in the north of Chile to prevent migrants from entering illegally, abolishing abortion, and reinforcing the police, among others. He has also criticized the United Nations and wishes to limit Chile´s involvement in it.
“It´s true that he is part of a nationalist populist right that has been surging in other countries, but in addition to that he inherited the more extreme positions of his former party,” says Robert Funk, a professor of political science at the Universidad de Chile and associate researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The lack of attractive candidates at the center of the political spectrum, the economic downturn, anticommunist feelings, and the government’s weakening due to social unrest, experts say, explain Kast´s rapid surge.
Catalina Justiniano, a 43-year-old independent graphic designer and a mother of three, told CNN that she identifies with moderate right politics. She was planning to vote for Sebastián Sichel, the independent candidate who represents the Center Right. But then, she watched the television debates.
“I changed my mind. I felt Sichel was softening up, not answering questions clearly and I lost my trust in him. Kast was the candidate who had a clear stance on issues that matter and called things by their names,” she says.
Justiniano says that the October 2019 social uprise and the pandemic deeply affected her family. She lost a large part of her income and felt insecure because of the violence of the riots. Now, she wants to live in peace.
“I don’t want anyone to give me money. I want to be able to earn my wage. I want to go out to work without worrying about taking public transportation”, she says.
Justiniano’s position summarizes the general feeling of some center-leaning voters who’ve been disillusioned with the candidates on offer. Experts say that Sichel didn’t manage to keep the momentum he initially gained, and the center left contender, Yasna Provoste, a member of the traditional Christian Democratic party and the only female candidate, joined the race later in and failed to fully connect with her target electorate.
Moving away from the center
Chileans don’t think in terms of left or right politics as much as in terms of a cleavage between chaos and order, according to Kenneth Bunker, a political scientist and the director of Tresquintos.cl, a digital platform of political analysis.
“The chaos doesn’t only mean violence. It is also the disarray that some of the economic measures taken after the uprising of October 2019 have provoked. Prices have raised and the inflation is at 6%,” he tells CNN.
A sector of Chileans also feels disenchanted with the social movement and the constitutional process. According to Cristóbal Bellolio, motivated by the idea of a more equal country, many felt they had to accept the turbulence, as a cost for decisive political agreements that would bring peace and prosperity. Now, they wonder if it was worth it.
Some feel frustrated not to see their lives change after all that, others worry that the Constituent Assembly is leaning too far left. They see Kast as a possible counterweight.
Justiniano, for example, does not support Kast’s more socially conservative policies, but believes Chile’s Congress won’t allow him to go through with them.
The demand for reassurance is strong enough for part of the population to trade once-cherished values for the idea of order and economic growth, experts say.
Álvarez is one of those people. He belongs to the LGTBQ+ community and knows that Kast is against same-sex marriage. But he says he is ready to sacrifice that kind of freedom in exchange for stronger leadership and more certainty about what comes forward.
“I only agree with 70% of what Kast proposes, because I believe public policies must be for everyone. I know he is conservative and that we need to open up to the world, but I still believe he is the best option to bring economic development,” he says.
Preparing for uncertainty
The final stretch of the race will be decisive, but a 15-day polling blackout before election day makes it difficult to anticipate the outcome of such a volatile electoral process.
“I believe Boric and Kast will be in the December runoff, but the political cycle goes too fast to define how much support each one of them will gather. They still can make mistakes that would affect their campaign,” says Bunker.
Whatever the result of Chile’s presidential election, experts say, instability is likely to prevail.
“Whoever wins will have to negotiate with a fragmented Congress and it won’t be easy to reach majorities” says Robert Funk.
“And neither platform is very elaborate. We don´t know how Boric will fund the policies he proposes, nor do we know the reaction Kast´s election could provoke in the streets. Unfortunately, this presidential election won´t reduce uncertainty”.