Today, Chileans vote in the second round of presidential elections in what the Economist has dubbed a “contest between extremes.” On the one hand is the left-wing candidate Gabriel Boric, and on the other, right-winger José Antonio Kast. This portrayal is, to put it mildly, a distortion.
In the panorama of the international left, nothing would mark out Boric’s program as “extreme.” As for Kast, it is a different story. A fringe candidate until not too long ago, his rhetoric and tactics showcase Latin American right-wing populism at its worst. Like his friend and ally Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, his electoral campaign has mixed influences ranging from conservative moralism and neoliberal dogmas to elements that seem plucked from Steve Bannon’s playbook of political lying.
No doubt, Gabriel Boric is not a normative center-left candidate. Having begun his political career as the leader of Chile’s 2011 student movement, he has sustained his image of a fist-raising, street-fighting revolutionary ever since. God forbid — his opponents allege — he has even smoked pot. Still, Boric appears particularly concerned to cater to what can be loosely defined as Chile’s social democratic middle class while still wanting to be recognized as an outsider to the political establishment. His party’s polling-based platform prioritizes the institution of public pension, health care, and education systems. These public services exist in one form or another in almost all highly developed countries, but have been stripped from Chileans during forty years of neoliberalism.
The “extreme” position would seem to be the determination to continue this state of affairs, rather than Boric’s plan for a change of course. Yet this certainly isn’t how Kast and his followers have portrayed things. While Augusto Pinochet’s neoliberal constitution of 1980 was annulled in a nationwide referendum last October, according to Kast’s backers, even implying that Chile’s neoliberal economic model should be altered is a danger to sacred principles. While Boric may describe his opponent as Pinochet’s ideological heir, Kast and his followers describe themselves as the true Chile struggling against an externally led, immoral, and illegitimate “anti-nation.”
For Good and Truth
Right-wing populists seem to have a distaste for election platforms, let alone programs. Longtime Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu even took pride in his party not having any. Kast’s Republican Party likewise has no program, only “guiding principles.” Some seem to pertain to the realm of pure metaphysics; for example, the claim that the party “believes in the Good and the Truth as objective realities.” Others promote “social justice” and the “social market economy” but reject “state welfare.” For a party that has chosen “Dare!” (Atrévete) as its motto, there is little daring about these slogans beyond the determination to consecrate the neoliberal status quo as holy grounds.
Even more than in the United States, for conservative Chileans, neoliberalism is not merely an economic system — justified in terms of attracting direct foreign investment — but a religion. Since the 1950s, its spokesmen have been postulating the “sacredness of private property” as the pinnacle of their moral order, thereby imbuing neoliberalism with Catholic spirituality. Embodying this ideological project were Kast’s mentor, the spiritualist ideologue Jaime Guzmán, and Kast’s older brother, Miguel. While the former designed Chile’s constitution of 1980, the latter helped orchestrate Chile’s neoliberal turn through Pinochet’s planning and coordination apparatus.
In Chile, the status quo has by now become synonymous with a concentration of wealth in the hands of an oligarchy of a few powerful families and international corporations. The country has topped the OECD’s ignominious inequality indexes for many years. Still, Kast and his followers react to notions such as wealth redistribution by dubbing them “ideologies” that threaten the “homeland’s deepest foundations.” Like Guzmán before them, by “ideology” they mean an abstract nineteenth-century concept that is alien to the Chilean cultural essence. Regardless of Boric’s position as a student leader, or whether his coalition of parties involves self-defined communists (it does), the fact that Kast’s campaign has used slogans such as “loyalty or communism” and “liberty or communism” has little to do with his opponent’s real ideological hinterland. Rather, it is meant to turn national politics into a Manichean battleground wherein either you are on the side of the Truth or you are a traitor in potential.
Yet it appears even Kast understands that deeming your challengers “communistic” — as Donald Trump and Bolsonaro do habitually — isn’t necessarily enough to transcend your political base and win elections. This might explain why he has abstained from making historical analogies between Boric and Salvador Allende. Unlike his Brazilian counterpart — and despite his own close personal links to Pinochet — Kast has cunningly refrained from praising Pinochet’s supposed “economic miracle.” In the Chile of 2021, he knows, this approach could backfire. Even the more extreme documents of Republican Action (his movement that preceded the Republican Party) contain little to no reference to Chile’s authoritarian past.
In other words, Chile’s Republican Party claims to have its gaze fixed on the future. This has allowed Kast not only to deny any responsibility for the country’s social and political crises but to focus his campaign entirely on issues that seem pulled from the Trump-Bolsonaro handbook, specifically “law and order” and illegal immigration. Integral to this strategy is the suggestion that Boric and his men back ethnic minority “terrorists” and support immigration as part of some kind of “Great Replacement” theory. Steeped in racism and fake news, Kast’s campaign also relied on moralism — pledging to defend family values from “gender ideology,” for example — although this effort was dwarfed by the far more effective fearmongering.
Reversing the Social Uprising
Yet Kast’s strategy doesn’t seem as effective as his Brazilian counterpart’s. For one thing, crime rates in Chile are hardly as high as in the United States, let alone Brazil, and are fundamentally linked to poverty rates and the weakening of state institutions — problems to which neoliberals such as President Sebastián Piñera and Kast’s Republican Party offer no programmatic solutions.
More worrisome for Kast is his difficulty in overcoming the narrative of Chile’s uprising on October 18, 2019, and its repercussions. With the mobilization against a hike in public transit fares soon developing into a massive protest movement against the neoliberal status quo, this was surely a pivotal moment in Chilean history. The following October, Chileans voted overwhelmingly to undo the 1980 constitution in a national plebiscite (with a 78 percent vote to draft a new document) and, in May 2021, when Chileans were again summoned to the ballot box, they gave left-wing and independent candidates more than two-thirds of the seats in the Constitutional Assembly, in theory preventing the Right from blocking the process.
Kast and his followers can neither change these circumstances nor ignore what the plebiscite proved: that the Chilean public has been deeply discontented with the status quo for many years. A vocal opponent of constitutional change, Kast has thus opted for two strategies. One has been to try and convince the so-called silent majority that the Left might have gone too far and that, as president, he will intervene in the assembly’s work so that Chileans’ freedoms and private property remain unharmed. On the other hand, backed by Chile’s conservative-held news outlets, he has sought to revise and redefine the 18-O “social outbreak.” In this telling, the uprising was not an inspiring moment of popular empowerment but a period when the nation lost its sovereignty to a gang of well-organized “vandals and delinquents” who were now going to “destroy Chile.” Speaking on Friday, he even stated that Chile “did not wake up” on 18-O but rather “entered a nightmare” from which it will “wake up on Sunday.” If there is any “daring” act to be sought in his otherwise insipid campaign, it is this effort to persuade millions of citizens that what they witnessed in October 2019 was, in reality, Chile losing the battle to the violent, ideological, and immoral anti-nation.
On that same Friday, Kast’s supporters sought to conclude their campaign on a more creative note. They arrived at Baquedano Plaza, covering its southern half in white paint and plaited flowers, while leaving the rest of the plaza dirty and neglected as it was. Coming to the aid of those unable to interpret the image (which Kast quickly tweeted) came the conservative MP Diego Schalper, who explained that it represented Boric’s Chile of “violence and destruction” vis-à-vis Kast’s Chile — “flourishing with vitality and future.” In doing so, he indicated just how much the Chilean conservative polity has gradually aligned with Kast’s binary worldview.
It is impossible to predict how this right-wing populist movement will mature further, if at all. After all, it took Trump several years to convince his supporters to assail the Capitol on January 6, 2021, and save the nation from a treasonous conspiracy. For his part, Boric has raised concerns that Kast might not accept the results if defeated, but it does not seem we are there quite yet. Even so, in a land where a military dictatorship executed over three thousand citizens on the grounds that their ideological allegiances threatened to eradicate Chile’s very foundations, even the prettiest flowers can acquire a deeply sinister appearance.