The Left Is Still Favored to Win Chile’s Presidency — But the Far Right Is Gaining Steam

With less than a month until Chile’s presidential election, hopes are high that leftist Gabriel Boric will win. But the collapse of the center right has unexpectedly allowed far-right nominee José Antonio Kast to surge.

Left-wing Chilean presidential candidate Gabriel Boric speaks to the press after a radio debate in Santiago, Chile, on October 15, 2021. (Claudio Reyes / AFP via Getty Images)

In less than a month, Chile will hold its highly anticipated presidential election — under somewhat unusual circumstances.

So far, the leftist candidate Gabriel Boric from the Broad Front (Frente Amplio, FA) seems to have the biggest lead in the polls; however, the far-right José Antonio Kast is also rising fast, and as the center-right begins to crumble, all signs point to a highly polarized contest. This, in a country that has grown accustomed to a revolving door between center-right and center-left governments.

Chileans will go to the polls to vote for a successor to right-wing president Sebastián Piñera at a time when his administration is at a historic nadir. His government received heavy international scrutiny during Chile’s 2019 uprising, when, on Piñera’s watch, police committed repeated human rights violations against protesters. At the same time, elections will take place less than a year after the election of members of the new Constitutional Convention, the body charged by popular vote with drafting the new constitution that would replace the so-called “Pinochet Constitution” of 1980.

Making matters more unpredictable, the campaign trail has seen the sudden collapse of   Piñera’s successor candidate, Sebastián Sichel. The recent Pandora Papers scandal brought to light Piñera’s participation in the sale of the Dominga mining company — a sale carried out in a tax haven in the British Virgin Islands. That collateral damage and Sichel’s own underperformance on the campaign trail seem to have put the Piñera-loyal candidate out of contention.

As recently revealed by a Pandora Paper leak, the president’s family signed a secret agreement that would make them direct beneficiaries of a deal allowing mining companies to operate without complying with environmental standards. The Chilean public prosecutor’s office has opened an investigation into the president to ascertain whether he committed bribery and tax evasion in doing so; the National Congress has gone one step further and initiated a political hearing that could lead to Piñera’s impeachment.

With elections just around the corner and the government in shambles, the Left’s path to victory would seem to be clear. Few, though, would have expected the Chilean far right to step so boldly into the vacancy left by the center right.

Kast: The Chilean Bolsonaro

In reaction to the decline of the ruling party’s standard-bearer, Sebastián Sichel, Chilean conservatives have launched a media blitz to promote the far-right candidate José Antonio Kast. Kast is a reactionary in the mold of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, and the fact that he is neck-and-neck with Boric should give us pause.

Who is Kast, and why has his support grown in a Chilean society that seemed to be turning left? Kast is a long-serving politician who has been in public office since 1996. Although he previously ran on the ticket of the Independent Democratic Union party (founded by Augusto Pinochet’s ideologue Jaime Guzmán), Kast ran as an independent in the 2017 elections.

Kast has since attempted to reinvent himself with a new party, but his politics remain the same: an unconditional defense of what in Chile is known as the “subsidiary state” — a Pinochet-inherited, ultra-stripped-back state model in which government can only provide services not available in the private sector (through conditional cash transfers, etc.) — and a populist rhetoric used to stoke indignation about the nation falling into the hands of “criminals,” political operators, “gender ideology fanatics,” and immigrants.

Kast’s support is strong with conservative sectors who were scandalized by the social uprising of 2019. He blames both the violence of riots and a looming economic crisis on foreign interference — some imaginary group with ties to Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro that is sowing chaos in the lives of ordinary Chileans and can only be stopped by his heavy-handed leadership.

The ultraconservative candidate has, in fact, run a campaign full of lies: Kast professes to be a patriot but had no reservations about investing $21 million in a Panamanian tax haven. He promises to stop migration by building a ditch along the entire national border, seemingly forgetting that his father migrated to Chile after serving in the Nazi army during World War II.

Kast has even committed blunders like calling for Chile to leave the United Nations Security Council — even though the country is not a member of that international body. Kast said that women’s mortality rates have increased in countries where abortion is legal, despite the fact that there is not a shred of evidence to support that claim.

Gaffes aside, Kast’s growing support is a wake-up call for those who optimistically believed that Chile’s revolt had done away with the deep-seated culture of authoritarianism. Kast is riding a wave of right-wing discontent, and it only remains to be seen if he can continue grow his candidacy.

Boric: A Hope for the Left

Even with the startling growth of the far right, the Left still holds a respectable, if narrowing, lead in the polls. Mounting social unrest has only intensified during the pandemic, and a large part of the population, galvanized by the Constitutional Convention, has actually been politicized in recent years and is showing unprecedented interest in the political process. Gabriel Boric, who helped make the Constitutional Convention possible, is the unquestioned opposition candidate against Piñera, and with policies like a green economic recovery bill, subsidies for women in the workplace and care work, tax reform, and wealth redistribution, Boric’s core proposals are widely popular.

Before becoming a congressman for Chile’s southern Magallanes region, Boric was a prominent leader during the country’s 2011 student protests, and he soon became the president of the FECh (Federación de Estudiantes de la Universidad de Chile, the University of Chile Student Federation), the oldest student federation of Latin America. His campaign has unsurprisingly benefited from strong support among young voters — no doubt in part because he played a prominent role as part of a whole Chilean generation that rose up against neoliberalism and patriarchy over the last decade.

When Boric was elected deputy for his region in 2013, he became the first candidate to win without an electoral coalition, thus bucking the binominal voting system inherited from the dictatorship that was designed to exclude new political parties. In 2017, he founded the Broad Front, a coalition composed of new leftist political parties and grassroots organizations.

Boric ran in the July primaries as part of the Apruebo Dignidad electoral coalition, a group of left-wing parties and organizations that supports the Constituent Assembly. Although those primaries included, among others, Boric’s own Broad Front Party and the Communist Party of Chile, the center-left parties and the Christian Democrats opted not to participate — adding to a growing sense that the center-left faction that has governed Chile for almost thirty years is out of step with the new political scene.

Boric’s main opponent in the primaries, the renowned Communist mayor Daniel Jadue, was the easy favorite. Boric and the Broad Front went into those elections facing criticism from some parts of the Left for having signed a political accord that, while paving the way for the Constituent Assembly, was seen by many as allowing too many concessions to the Chilean political establishment. Nevertheless, Boric rallied support in both middle- and working-class sectors of Chilean society — casting off the Broad Front’s reputation as a middle-class party — and ended up not only winning the primaries, but doing so by a hefty margin.

Boric’s challenge since the primaries has been to build his base of support not only beyond his core generational constituency, but beyond the Left itself. While details are still forthcoming, his economic program calls for “steady transformations,” and that messaging seems to be playing well to a cautiously optimistic electorate.

Entering the final stretch, Kast will appeal to feelings of social unease and offer authoritarian, reactionary quick fixes. Boric must respond by putting forth a vision of change that is at once hopeful and clear-sighted. A Boric victory alone may not solve all the problems in the land known as “neoliberalism’s birthplace,” but it would be a vital shot in the arm as the Constitutional Convention begins the hard work of writing a new Magna Carta for a better, more egalitarian Chile.