Chile is having an advantage when voters tilt to extremes before the election

Chile, hailed for decades as a model of steady economic growth but reeling from two years of social unrest, will vote on Sunday in a general election that has sharply polarized the country between left and right.

Massive uncertainty hangs over Sunday’s race, first presidential vote since estallido, or explosively, protests in 2019 triggered by rising fares on the Santiago metro, quickly escalated into anger over the high cost of living and income inequality.

The protests left the currently unpopular Sebastián Piñera government on the verge of collapse, and began its redesign. dictatorship constitution. Chile does not allow re-election for consecutive terms, so Piñera, the presidency ends in March, non-permanent.

One of the frontrunners to move towards a second round vote in December is Gabriel Boric, 35, a radical MP and former student leader who rose to fame a decade ago during the protests. on the street against inequality in education.

He hopes Chile’s pledge to bury Chile’s “neo-liberal” past with market-oriented policies that have failed to narrow social divides will resonate with young voters.

Teachers protesting against the Chilean government hold placards depicting President Sebastián Piñera
Teachers protesting against the Chilean government hold placards depicting president Sebastián Piñera © Claudio Reyes / AFP via Getty Images

His main opponent, José Antonio Kast, is an ultra-conservative who defends the free market and traditional values. Kast, a 55-year-old former MP and father of nine, has spoken out against immigration, same-sex marriage and abortion.

Kast appealed to Chilean voters shunned by the left, promising to restore order and cut taxes under the new nationalist Republican party he founded in 2019. “Dare yourself” is the tagline. his candidacy.

Andres Bustamante, 31, from Santiago, who voted for Piñera in the last election, said Kast’s more radical ideas made him uncomfortable, but admired how “he was outspoken with everyone” people. . . Kast is the only one who is consistent in his message.”

In a bustling commercial district of the capital, Sarah González, a 35-year-old psychologist, said she would vote in the first round for Boric, who she considers “the best of the bad guys”. but still represent politics. established, although operating as an independent.

There are five other candidates, including moderate Sebastian Sichel, a former social development minister under Piñera, whose performance in the final televised debate suggested he could experience a “a late rise to overtake Kast,” said Nicholas Watson, Regional Director for Latin America at Teneo.

Political tensions were further heightened by the impeachment proceedings launched against Piñera aimed at ousting him just months before he left office, which the ruling coalition says was exploited by the left to gain ground. political interests.

Chile’s House of Representatives narrowly voted for start the proceedings against allegations that the president acted improperly in selling his family’s $152 million in mining profits. But this week, the 43-member Senate fell five votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to remove him from office.

Piñera may have avoided removal, but for the 15 million Chileans eligible to vote, the fierce televised debates in both chambers demonstrated just how deeply divided the country has become. .

“There are two candidates, from two extremes. . . comes after the weakest government Chile has had since our return to democracy [in 1990],” Jose De Gregorio, professor of economics and former central bank governor, told the Financial Times.

Whoever becomes president will also oversee the voter-approved council that has begun drafting a replacement for the current deeply divisive constitution.

Adopted in 1980 in the midst of General Augusto Pinochet’s brutal regime, it represents, for many, a direct connection to the dictatorship despite numerous modifications.

For others, it is a free-market handbook that has helped make it one of the most stable and successful economies in Latin America. The constitution favors private enterprise, which its supporters say has fueled the country’s dramatic growth and lifted millions out of poverty.

The new council could weaken the president’s power and widen the reach of the Chilean state. Robert Funk, a political scientist at the University of Chile, said the council’s emphasis on identity, diversity and political independence can “make it impossible for us to really agree on anything” what”.

All of this could leave the newly elected leader with little room to maneuver, once the new text is put on full display in the third quarter of next year.

As for Piñera, he still faces another four months in office regardless of the outcome on Sunday. His approval rating is hovering at 20%, meaning he risks ending his term unpopular over Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

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