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Chilean Republican Party candidate José Antonio Kast gives a thumbs up sign to supporters after hearing the result of the general election, November 21 2021.
Front-runner: Republican Party candidate, José Antonio Kast. EPA-EFE/Elvis Gonzalez

Chile: voter apathy could hand the presidency to far-right inheritor of the Pinochet legacy

Far-right politician, José Antonio Kast, has come away from the first round of the Chilean presidential elections as the candidate with the highest percentage of votes. He will face former student protest leader Gabriel Boric in a fiercely contested run-off vote on December 19.

Kast obtained 27.9% of the votes cast on November 21 compared with Boric’s 25.8%. But the turnout was only 46%, reflecting a degree of voter apathy that surprised many observers. The election came only a few months after progressive intellectual, Elisa Loncón, was elected to oversee the writing of a new constitution for Chile. This in turn had followed massive street protests in 2019 – dubbed estallido social (the social explosion) – which led to a referendum over sweeping reforms.

Read more: Chile: election of progressive indigenous academic to oversee constitutional reform is a blow to right-wing establishment

But the strength of public feeling appears not to have translated into votes for Boric, who ran as the reform candidate. Speaking to the Chilean press once the votes were counted, Boric was defiant:

It’s in these difficult moments that true leadership is tested … The challenge that begins today is a challenge against something. I didn’t occupy this space to speak ill of other candidates. We come here to be the voice of hope, of dialogue and unity. Our crusade is that hope overcomes fear.

Pinochet 2.0?

The Kast family has played a part in right-wing Chilean politics for decades. José Antonio – or JAK, as he is often known – is the son of former Nazi, Michael Kast, who escaped to Chile after the second world war.

His brother, Miguel Kast-Rist, was one of the “Chicago Boys” – the Harvard-trained economic thinktank assembled by Milton Friedman to design a strict monetarist economic model for Augusto Pinochet in the years following the 1973 US-backed coup in which the then-president, Salvador Allende, was deposed and murdered. Miguel’s son Felipe is a senator and a member of the governing coalition party, Evópoli (political evolution).

Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet shakes the hand of US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger in 1976.
Augusto Pinochet with US secretary of state Henry Kissinger in 1976, Pinochet’s Chile was a testing ground for neoliberal economic policies. Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores de Chile, CC BY-SA

The Kast family were both benefactors and supporters of the Pinochet regime and have been dogged by allegations of involvement in human-rights abuses during Pinochet’s decades in power. José Antonio Kast stood on a platform of social and moral order and is expected, if he secures victory in next months run-off election, to represent the interests of the Pinochetista elite.

Read more: General Pinochet arrest: 20 years on, here's how it changed global justice

His campaign managed to capitalise on anti-immigrant sentiment stirred up by a recent surge of migration from Venezuela, Haiti and Colombia. He has also successfully exploited a widespread fear of communism – helped by Chile’s notoriously concentrated media that has been sympathetic to the Pinochet regime and its fiercely neoliberal model.

Another message hammered home by the Kast campaign was a fear of the “enemy within”. This is a dog-whistle reference to tensions in the southern Araucania region, where indigenous Mapuche communities are struggling to exert ancestral land rights, placing them in direct conflict with multinational interests.

His socially regressive proposals include the deportation of migrants, scrapping the women’s ministry and the continuation of the unpopular pension system. He also supports the further militarisation of Chilean society, exemplified by draconian laws that already heavily penalise protest and the constant presence of armed security forces on the streets of Santiago since the 2019 social unrest, promising a “firm hand” against activists.

Boric’s challenge

The low turnout reflects the Boric campaign’s failure to engage Chile’s working-class vote. This is nothing new in Chilean politics – from the start of the country’s transition to democracy, votes have been steadily declining.

Left-wing Chilean presidential candidate, Gabriel Boric, makes a speech ahead of the November 21 election.
Struggling to mobilise working-class support: progressive Chilean presidential candidate, Gabriel Boric. EPA-EFE/Alberto Valdes

Gabriel Boric rose to political prominence as a student leader at the University of Chile, Santiago during the 2011-13 student protests. He was elected to the Chilean congress in 2013 and again in 2017 as an independent. In the 2021 presidential election, he stood as a candidate representing the Apruebo Dignidad, a coalition of left-wing parties.

Valentina Rosas, a political scientist at Chile’s Pontifical Catholic University, alluded to the disconnect between the political elite and the wider electorate, telling The Guardian: “It looks like some of the things Boric stands for don’t respond to people’s urgent needs. They have no bearing on the price of bread or stopping people breaking into your home.”

Despite huge numbers of protesters calling for social change during 2019-20’s mass mobilisations – with many risking extreme violence and imprisonment from Chile’s notoriously repressive security forces – voting figures indicate that grassroots movements do not necessarily translate to formal political engagement. Boric will need to counter this if he is to attract the numbers necessary to win the presidency.

But trends in Chile’s voter participation indicate a growing disenchantment with parliamentary politics as numbers continue to fall. In 1989, the turnout in the first democratic election after the Pinochet regime was toppled, was 94.7%. But by 2017, after two decades of weak transition to democracy, and successive governments failing to address growing structural inequalities, just 46.5% of the electorate voted.

Whatever the reasons behind the disengagement of Chilean voters, Boric must find a way to lure back people alienated from parliamentary politics. If he is unable to do this, the country risks slipping back into the clutches of the far-right, whose legacy was once thought so toxic in Chile.

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