Chile sees presidential name renewal in election with uncertain outcome

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You have to crouch down to go through the metallic door of the Fama pizzeria, in the center of the Chilean capital.

“You can’t leave everything open, because the mess starts quickly, and I can’t close it until rocks or tear gas start to get in,” says manager Orlando, 64, as he shows off the graffiti covering the facade: “Piñera assassin”, “carabineros = nazism”, “freedom to political prisoners”.

In the same state is almost the entire region that surrounds Baquedano Square, now known as Dignidad. The place was the epicenter of protests that broke out in October 2019 and continued intense until March of the following year, with a toll of 34 dead and more than 2,000 injured. Since then, even with restrictions imposed by the pandemic, the acts are performed every Friday, although with less intensity.

Recently added to the slogans painted everywhere was the visual pollution of the presidential election campaign, which this Sunday (21) will have its first round. And it is not possible to dissociate the history of the demonstrations from the choice of the new president of Chile. The protests resulted in the drafting of a new constitution and in the erosion of the image of the current leader, Sebastián Piñera — involved in the case of the Pandora Papers, which resulted in a request for impeachment, and in conflicts with the Mapuche indigenous people.

“Here I lost my eyes”, says another graffiti, at the entrance of a kiosk that sells sweets and phone cards — a memory of the 460 victims of the repression who suffered eye injuries, according to a survey by the National Institute of Human Rights (INDH).

“It’s melancholy to wake up every day to work, get here and read these words, it’s a nightmare that doesn’t end. We want a little peace of mind, whoever the new president is,” says Rocío, 52, as he serves customers. The graffiti, as well as the occupation of old buildings in downtown Santiago, tell the story of the movement that started the transformations that Chile is experiencing today.

“Until now, it seemed that we were living a progressive wave, of deconstruction of neoliberal Chile, on the way to a fairer and more inclusive society”, says political scientist Claudia Heiss. “But now we see that another Chile is reacting. The country that didn’t go out to protest in Dignidad Square, that doesn’t want changes and that is afraid of the disruption of the system that existed before.”

Six candidates are vying for the right to command the Palace of La Moneda, seat of government, from March 2022. None of them have more than 30% of voting intentions, according to the most recent polls, which should lead the decision to a second round — to be played on December 19.

This scenario also has a degree of uncertainty, due to two factors: 23% of voters still say they are undecided, and the history of surveys of this type in Chile leaves room for some surprises.

According to the Cadem institute, the race is led by the ultra-rightist José Antonio Kast, with 25% of the voting intentions. Then there is the leftist Gabriel Boric, with 19%. Next come the centre-right Franco Parisi (10%), the centre-left Yasna Provoste (9%) and the governing Sebastián Sichel (8%).

The candidacy of Kast, 55, is the surprise of this election. Three months ago, he occupied fourth place in the polls, but he rose by raising the tone of his criticisms of Piñera and adopting the discourse of fear about the possibility of the left coming to power — by then, Boric was the leader. With the banners of anti-communism and anti-globalism, propagating a restrictive policy in relation to immigration and hard-line in the security area, the name of the right gained space.

This is not the first time that Kast has run for president. In 2017, it had 8% of the vote and was left out of the second round. His defense of the dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) yields heated discussions on social media. On the 13th, he stated that the regime could not be compared to the current ones in Cuba and Venezuela because in Chile there would have been no persecution of opponents.

The facts do not corroborate the speech: during the Chilean dictatorial period, more than 3,000 people disappeared, many of them thrown overboard or buried in the Atacama Desert.

“Kast responds to the imagination of those who are afraid of the future, while the economy and the social situation are more confused — with conflicts with indigenous peoples in the Araucania region, inflation, immigration and increased insecurity”, says economist Claudio Elórtegui, from the Pontifical Catholic University of Valparaíso. “Your speech gains strength because it gives a simple and straightforward answer of confidence.”

Boric is also a relatively new phenomenon in Chilean politics. A 35-year-old MP, he was part of the group of young student leaders who in 2011 protested for free university education.

Although his profile is that of a moderate leftist, he has in his alliance the Communist Party of Chile and other more radical organizations. Unlike Kast, he defends advances in civil rights laws, such as abortion and equal marriage. It also differs from the name of the ultra-right by having in its program the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples, who make up 9% of the population.

Sichel and Provoste represent the “mainstream” of Chilean politics until 2019. The former, former minister of Piñera, is supported by the right and center-right parties of the governing coalition Chile Vamos, of which the traditional UDI (Democratic Union) is part Independent). The second is the candidate of the Concertación, a center-left political force that has governed Chile for more than 20 years since redemocratization.

“It’s a historic election, in which, for the first time, neither of the two forces that dominated Chilean politics will be in the match. It’s a total renewal in that sense,” says political scientist Cristóbal Belollio. For the scholar, however, it is shallow to say that the country is experiencing a radical polarization.

“Both Kast and Boric, if they move into the second round, must take steps towards the center — or they won’t attract more votes. That will force them to moderate positions and force a redrawing of the political map.”

These new features of Chilean politics should also leave marks in the new composition of Congress — in addition to voting for president, the election will serve to indicate a new Chamber and 27 of the 50 senators. The Parliament, a few days ago, saw the deputies approve the opening of an impeachment process against Piñera, which ended up being barred in the Senate.

In Chile, voting has not been mandatory since 2012, and recent elections have seen large abstentions. In the last regionals, which chose governors, only 20% of voters participated. In the 2017 presidential elections, won by Piñera, the index did not reach 50%, not even in the second round. The October referendum, which defined that the country would have a new constitution, also had low participation, 50.95% of the electorate.

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