Chileans will go out to vote today in the second — and decisive — round of the country’s most consequential presidential elections in over three decades. The first round, held on November 21, did not yield a clear winner. Far-right candidate Jose Antonio Kast, 55, of the Republican Party finished on top with 28% of the vote while the left-wing alliance’s Gabriel Boric, 35, a former student leader and two-time Congressman, came second with 25.7%. Today’s vote is the run-off between the two, with the winner taking charge as Chile’s next President. What sets this Presidential election apart is that it comes at a crucial time: Chile is in the process of drafting a new Constitution. The choice of President will have a bearing on the kind of Constitution Chileans will get.
In May 2021, Chileans voted to elect the members of a Constitutional Convention — the equivalent of a Constituent Assembly — to work on a new Constitution to replace the one that was imposed on them through a fraudulent plebiscite under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. To everyone’s surprise, mainstream political parties did poorly in these elections, with independent candidates winning most of the 155 seats. Under the pressure of public opinion, various electoral mechanisms had been employed to ensure, perhaps for the first time in the world, a Constitution-drafting body with absolute gender parity (50% of the members are women) and reserved seats (17 out of 155) for indigenous people. Understandably, expectations from the new Constitution — the final draft will be subjected to a national vote in 2022 — are high.
The drafting is the culmination of a process of democratic transition that began in 1990, when Chile emerged from the Pinochet dictatorship. In the last 30 years, the country saw a succession of centrist governments that implemented textbook neoliberal policies — privatisation, deregulation, low taxes, welfare cuts — leading to the classical neoliberal ailment of extreme inequality, not to mention attendant symptoms of high indebtedness, resentment, and political unrest.
The first major protests against the political establishment occurred in the winter of 2011, when students occupied campuses to demand free university education. One of the student leaders who became the face of these protests was Mr. Boric, then 25 years old. He was also active in the even more massive demonstrations that erupted across Chile in October 2019. Triggered by a transport fare hike, the demonstrations zeroed in on the steep inequality, and the fact that the majority of Chile’s elected representatives, regardless of the parties they belonged to, came from a small, mostly white, elite. The protests produced calls for a wholesale revamp of the political system, which coalesced into a demand for a new Constitution. The government, led by Sebastian Pinera, a billionaire conservative, gave in.
In what is viewed as a victory for the social movement led by the Left, a national plebiscite held in October 2020 saw overwhelming support for a new Constitution. Mr. Boric, as presidential candidate of the left-wing alliance, which also includes the communist party, has campaigned on a plank of inclusivity, gender equality, and climate-friendly development. If he wins, not only will he become Chile’s youngest ever President, the progressive forces driving the framing of a new Constitution will get a sympathetic Executive to work with. Although Mr. Boric was leading in the last opinion polls (held November-end) that were permissible before the run-off on December 19, reports indicate Mr. Kast has since closed the gap. The recent electoral successes of the Left have also triggered a conservative backlash, polarising the country between those who prefer ‘order’ and those on the side of the ‘protesters’, with the latter’s demand for change in status quo equated with ‘chaos’.
Mr. Kast, who has publicly expressed pro-Pinochet sentiments, has been compared to Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, both for his hostility to gender equality and abortion rights, and neoliberal politics, favouring low taxes on the rich and a minimalist welfare state. As for Mr. Boric, although he is seen as a compromise candidate among the Left, — his victory over the more fancied Communist candidate in the primaries was a surprise – his socialist orientation, likened to that of the Podemos in Spain, is making the nation’s business elites nervous.
In recent years, Chile, as the most prosperous democracy in Latin America, has seen a large influx of distress migrants from Venezuela and Haiti. This has become fodder for right-wing elements intent on stoking anxieties over identity. In what is not great news for Mr. Boric, — which has adopted a stance of inclusion vis-à-vis migrants — the conservatives have tasted success in injecting identity politics into issues of inequality and pension cuts, and thus migration, along with law and order, is now one of the key issues on which Chileans will vote today. While the margin of victory is likely to be small, the outcome, regardless of who wins, will have an outsize impact on the future of Chilean politics.