Chile is experiencing a turbulent chapter in its political history. The population is preparing to go to the polls this Sunday (21) to choose a successor, among seven candidates, of current president Sebastián Piñera, who escaped a impeachment, last week. The two most voted will go to the second round, scheduled for December 19.
Based on information revealed by the Panama Papers, Piñera was accused of irregularities in the sale of a mining project in a deal carried out in the British Virgin Islands. Although the deputies have approved the impeachment, the process was stopped in the Senate last Tuesday (16). The rejection took place despite the opposition’s 24 votes in favor: 29 were needed, in other words, two-thirds of the 43 senators.
Parallel to the discussion of the impeachment, Chile is preparing for Piñera’s succession, as his term will end in March 2022. The latest voting intention polls point to ultra-conservative José Antonio Kast and young progressive Gabriel Boric as possible opponents in the second round.
“These are candidates that come from outside the traditional system. They are new parties and new movements that challenge the traditional system”, pondered Juan Pablo Luna, political scientist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, during a debate online organized by the Brazilian Center for International Relations (Cebri) last Wednesday (17th).
He anticipates a polarized debate, but reckons it is too early to tell whether society is polarized. “We don’t know how much of this polarization actually mobilizes society or how much alienates society.”
The most recent surveys were released about two weeks ago by the Pulso Ciudadano, Plaza Pública, Panel Ciudadano and Criteria institutes. Kast varied between 21% and 25% of voting intentions and Boric was between 17% and 25% of voter preferences. None of the other candidates surpassed 11% in the different polls.
If there have been any changes in the scenario in the last two weeks, they will not be captured: Chilean law prohibits disclosing surveys of voting intentions in the 15 days prior to the election.
For political scientist Mauricio Santoro, professor of the International Relations course at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (Uerj), this is a very volatile electoral process that has already shown some upheavals. Despite this, he believes that there will hardly be any surprises about who will go to the second round. “The two candidates, each in their own way, represent a very strong rejection by the electorate of traditional politics. The voters are looking for an alternative, whether on the radical right or on the new left,” he says.
The latest surveys also indicated more than 20% of undecided voters. Voting in Chile is not mandatory. Santoro believes that low voter turnout can benefit Kast. “When there is a large abstention, the tendency is for the most committed voter, who is sometimes the most radicalized, to exert the most influence. He can have a disproportionate effect on the outcome.”
In any scenario, Chileans will have a new name in charge of the country after more than a decade and a half. In the past 16 years, there have only been two presidents in the face of the alternation between the center-left government of Michele Bachelet and the center-right government of Sebastián Piñera. For Santoro, it was a period without any degree of political radicalization. But he believes that Chile, where the government shifted from the moderate left to the moderate right and party preferences were more stable, is in the past.
Kast, a 55-year-old lawyer who does not hide his sympathy for the authoritarian regime led between 1973 and 1990 by General Augusto Pinochet, is the name of the Republican Party. His campaign has also been compared to those carried out by Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro: he has already given public praise to both. In some ways, Santoro sees him closer to the former president of the United States. “He is incorporating some themes that were secondary in Brazil, such as the issue of immigration.”
In turn, the candidacy of current deputy Gabriel Boric is presented by Apruebo Dignidad, an alliance between the Frente Amplio and the Communist Party of Chile. At 35 years old, the minimum age to be president of the country, he designed his political career from the student movement that has gained strength in the last two decades raising the banner of access to education.
The articulation of his candidacy was designed as a continuation of the mobilizations for the implantation of the Constituent Convention, which is dedicated to drawing up a new Constitution to replace the previous one in 1980, created in the midst of Pinochet’s dictatorial government. The drafting of Chile’s new charter should be completed by October 2022, when it will be submitted to a popular consultation.
The Constituent Convention was established by decision of a plebiscite called by Piñera in light of popular pressure amid protests in 2019: the agendas present in the acts included various claims associated with social rights, individual freedoms and gender issues. The deep differences between the two candidates who are projected to the second round were already evident at that time: while Boric joined the demonstrations, Kast was one of the voices against the referendum.
Mauricio Santoro spoke about the importance of the Chilean elections and the Constituent Convention for Latin America. “Chile was considered, for many years, an example of stability for the region. And that perception no longer exists, at least since the great protests that took place in 2019 and all this mobilization that is resulting in the Constituent Convention”, he says.
In recent months, there have been some conflicts among the population linked to electoral tension, as a result of radical positions on some issues, such as immigration. Kast even proposed the creation of ditches on the border to prevent the entry of foreigners. In late September, scenes of Chileans burning Venezuelans’ belongings during an anti-immigration protest in the city of Iquiqui had widespread news coverage.
In addition to Boric and Kast, five other candidates are vying for the presidency. With Piñera’s support, governmentist Sebastián Sichel tries to show himself as a representative of a right-wing willing to dialogue. In the field of the left and center-left, the progressive Marco Enríquez Ominami and the Christian Democrat Yasna Provoste also participate in the election, as well as Eduardo Artés, leader of the Chilean Communist Party Ação Prolettária, a dissidence from the Communist Party of Chile.
The seventh candidate is Franco Parisi, who carried out his entire campaign on the Internet from the United States, which has generated criticism from other competitors. His absence from the country coincides with a lawsuit for non-payment of alimony to two children. There is an order for him to be prevented from leaving the country, which would cause him problems if he decided to travel to Chile. Last week, the candidate announced that he has covid-19 and, due to quarantine, will stay in the United States on election day.
Also due to the illness, the final stretch of the campaigns had an unforeseen truce earlier this month. Boric’s positive test for covid-19 placed the other candidates, with the exception of Parisi, in seven-day confinement. They had participated in a face-to-face debate the day before the onset of symptoms.