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"Vote for the least worst": Chile experience the most uncertain elections since the country's return to democracy

Whoever is elected this Sunday in the presidential runoff will come to power without a strong popular base

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Next Sunday, December 19, Chilean voters will go to the polls to cast their ballots in the presidential runoff. This is the most uncertain election since the return of democracy in Chile in 1990. In the race, which promises to be tight, are far-right candidate Jose Antonio Kast and leftist Gabriel Boric. This is the first time that a Chilean runoff is being contested by people who do not belong to either of the two large coalitions that have alternated in power since 1990.

In the first round, Kast came first with 27.9% of the vote, and Boric came second with 25.8%. In recent weeks, the left-wing candidate had overtaken the far-right candidate, according to a survey by the Cadem consultancy, which stated that Boric would have 40% of the vote, while Kast would get 35%. However, another 25%, a significant portion of voters, declared themselves undecided.

In the past, when the candidates belonged to traditional parties, such as the two coalitions that governed Chile in the last 31 years, from the center-left and the center-right, the undecided would go half to one candidate and half to another in the second round.

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But these party structures have been severely shaken in the last two years, starting with the “Estallido Social,” the name of the sequence of daily protests held for months in late 2019 and early 2020. The historical parties were paralyzed in the face of the protests and were unable to respond quickly to the demands of the demonstrators.

It was then that figures without political relevance emerged until this year, such as Boric and Kast. Both come from new party structures: Kast founded his party three years ago and Boric founded his two years ago.

Given this new scenario, it is a mystery how the undecided will behave.

Analysts point out that the Chilean electorate is being marked by “fluid” behavior. In the May elections for governors and mayors, the left and center-left parties won overwhelmingly. The right was practically left behind, except for small gains.

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All the traditional parties suffered a colossal defeat in the constituent elections, held on the same day as the voting for governors and mayors”Vote for the least worst”: Chileans experience the most uncertain elections since Chile‘s return to democracy since more than 70% of those elected to write a new constitution are independents with center-left leanings.

However, in the first round of the presidential elections, the sum of the votes of all parties from the far-right, right, and center-right constituted 53.5% of the total. That is, more than half of the electorate that went to the polls voted for the conservative and neoliberal sides.

Besides this mutability that recalls the verses of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Rigoletto,” we could say that the Chilean electorate “è mobile / qual piuma al vento / muta d’accento / e di pensiero” (“it is fickle, like a feather in the wind, changes its words and thoughts”).

And, to complicate matters, there are more factors that make the outcome of the second round highly unpredictable.

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Minimal real popular base

Besides the undecided, there is also the part of the electorate that abstained from voting in the first round. And this contingent is significant: 53% of Chilean voters did not go to vote. The big question now is whether these people will leave their homes to vote in the crucial second round. Several analysts consider that an undefined part of the voters who abstained this time will go to the voting centers.

However, these people, if they vote in the runoff, will not do so out of appreciation or love for one of the candidates, but out of the rejection or anger they feel for the other. Let’s review the votes that the two had in the 1st round:

  • Kast with 27.9% of the voters who went to vote;
  • Boric with 25.8% of the voters who went to vote.

Taking into account that more than half of the electorate did not go to vote, in reality the two candidates were chosen to go to the 2nd round by minorities, which are these:

  • Kast, with 13% of the total electorate;
  • Boric, with 12% of the total electorate.

There is also the 13% obtained in the first round by the right-wing populist Franco Parisi, whose electorate can be broadly defined as “anti-system”. Analysts consider that this electorate could split between Kast and Boric.

75% of the total electorate voted for other candidates or simply did not go to vote. Therefore, the outcome of this election is a huge unknown, especially by the so-called “shame vote”, i.e. people who would already know who to vote for but are ashamed to formally spell it out.

Turning to the Center

In recent weeks Kast and Boric have tried to seduce the center electorate.

Kast moderated his anti-feminist speech and avoided further references to dictator Augusto Pinochet, of whom he is a declared fan. He brushed off a deputy from his party who had suggested eliminating women’s voting rights (the newly elected deputy had to resign) and went back on his promise to do away with the Ministry of Women. Kast also made a mild criticism of the Pinochet regime by referring generically to that era as “an authoritarian government.” In addition, he softened his promises of fiscal adjustment, indicating that it will be done “gradually.”

José Antonio Kast. Photo: Twitter @joseantoniokast

Boric has also turned to the center. To the horror of the secular sectors of his supporters, he met with representatives of the Protestant churches and with Catholic priests to assure them that he would not take measures against the religious school system. The candidate has gone back on his proposal to raise taxes for the upper class and corporations in the short term and has also backed down on one of his main flagships, that of completely eliminating the private pension system.

The candidate also started talking about “fighting crime” and “the need for public order” and calibrated the pitch in relation to the government of Michelle Bachelet, who used to be the target of fierce criticism from the candidate. The former president has even met with Boric, as if to back him up, despite his past criticisms. The perspective of a victory by the extreme right-wing candidate has this effect that Borges resumed in a verse: “They are not united by love, but by astonishment”.

Gabriel Boric. Photo: Twitter @gabrielboric

Despite the recent “centrification” of the two candidates who try to come across as skimpy as if they were yogurt brands available to consumers, both represent opposing visions of Chile.

Kast, for example, is a fervent Catholic and against the legalization of abortion; he calls any minority claim “gender ideology”; he preaches a minimal state (the current Chilean state, perhaps the smallest in the region, is considered “large” by Kast) and promises – if elected – to implement “the restoration of order.” He does not believe in climate change and intends to prevent illegal immigrants from entering the country by building a huge moat on Chile’s northern border.

Boric, on the other hand, proposes to strengthen the state in order to guarantee free public education (in Chile, part of public education is paid for) and health care. Boric also promises to defend minority rights and gender equality.

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Boric is from the small Social Convergence party. However, the main party base of his coalition is the former Chilean Communist Party. Kast accuses Boric of being obedient to the CP. Boric retorts that he is “independent. The leftist candidate has even changed his customary way of addressing the public from “comrades” to “Chileans.

Boric has long been a critic of the regimes of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. Therefore, Kast has failed to attack him from that specific side.

Whoever the new president is, he will have no room to apply radical measures, either on the left or on the right, since neither of them will have a majority of their own. And in Parliament both forces are practically tied.

“Passionate for order”

Venezuelan historian Andrés Bello, who went into exile in Chile in the 19th century, defined local society as “passionate for order,” in reference to Chileans’ customary behavior of clinging to order after an initial few decades after independence of intense political instability.

To illustrate, let’s think about our neighboring country, Argentina. Argentines are used to (or resigned to) constant political instability, economic crises, currency fluctuations, blockades of avenues and streets by groups of “picketers”. That is, chaos is part of everyday Argentine life, just like the “medialunas” for breakfast and the alfajores for lunch. The Chileans, on the other hand, fear and reject any kind of shake-up in their daily lives.

For this reason, the intense popular demonstrations since 2019, although they generated broad support at the beginning, lost popular support in the face of the explosion of violence that followed. People who agreed with the demands, but did not accept the depredation of public and private spaces committed by a minority of the demonstrators, left the movement.

Analysts indicate that Chileans want reforms for a number of points (health, education, security)… but that they should be made “in an orderly way”.

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Kast uses the violence of the demonstrations to attack Boric. To make matters worse, Boric has never been emphatic enough to criticize the depredations, which bothers many sectors of the electorate. Not only that, southern Chile in recent years has been the scenario of protests by Mapuche indigenous people, who have attacked farms with Molotov cocktails and blocked roads. Although these are not groups linked to Boric, this has also helped Kast’s discourse of “fighting disorder.

In the Araucanía region, Kast took 42.16% of the vote in the first round, the only case of a candidate in these elections passing the 40% range in one state of the country. There, Boric got only 16.58% of the vote.

Kast’s anti-migrant speech also has an impact. This rhetoric is very successful in the poorer northern part of the country, where mining is the main economic activity. The miners, although they are highly union-oriented (and agree with many of the left-wing parties’ stances), are conservative in the moral area and do not want competition from immigrants in economic activities. This is evident in the city of Tarapacá, where in the first round, Kast got 30.4% of the vote and Boric only 18.3%.

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The far-right candidate has on several occasions declared admiration for Pinochet, who during his military regime had Nazi collaborators active in Third Reich Germany, one of them a notorious pedophile. However, when talking about his father, the German Michael Kast, who migrated to Chile after the war, the candidate always indicated that his father had been a mere soldier in the German troops, but swore that he had never been a Nazi.

The reality, it turned out, was different. An Associated Press investigation indicated that Michael Kast joined the Nazi party in September 1942 with card number 9,271,831. Being a soldier was mandatory in Germany. However, there was no requirement to be in the Nazi party.

In 1950, Michael left Germany with Red Cross papers, after destroying his German Army officer papers. And thanks to Erik Wünsch, a former Third Reich officer who had migrated to Chile, he was able to get visas to enter the country.

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The book “In the shadow of the crows” by investigative journalist Javier Rebolledo, about the participation of civilians in the dictatorship, indicates that Cristian Kast, brother of the current candidate, collaborated with the DINA, the dark political police of the Pinochet dictatorship, a kind of local Gestapo. In addition, the work states that Kast-father collaborated in the arrest of some of Pinochet’s opponents.


Meanwhile, the Constituent Assembly is drafting a new Constitution for Chile. Its members are considering a drastic reduction in presidential powers.

The possibility that the Chilean political system will change from the current hyper-presidential format to a parliamentary one is not discarded. In this way, a scenario could arise in which the new president (who takes office in March) could have his powers reduced months after taking office.

But, for this, the new Constitution needs to be approved. In the second half of next year, Chileans will go to the polls to decide whether or not to approve the new constitution. If it is not approved, the current constitution will be kept.