Election in Chile: New beginnings or back to the past?

Status: 11/20/2021 3:26 a.m.

In the presidential election in Chile, the focus is on two candidates that could not be more different: the left Boric and the right-wing populist Kast. The election is also a vote on the legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship.

By Anne Herrberg, ARD Studio Rio de Janeiro

Gabriel Boric likes to climb trees: preferably the big cypress trees in his hometown Punta Arenas in Magallanes on the extreme southern tip of Chile. For him, the tree symbolizes freedom and the struggle for a new society, he told journalists in July. At that time he surprisingly emerged victorious from the internal area code of the left-wing coalition “Apruebo Dignidad”.

Anne Herrberg
ARD-Studio Rio de Janeiro

Now he is standing under old araucaria trees on Plaza Ñuñoa in the east of Santiago de Chile and wants to explain what his idea of ​​the new Chile looks like. Climate protection and feminism, middle class instead of mega-mining, more weight for the regions, minimum wages and affordable housing: “If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, then it can also be the grave,” he says – “but one on which all flowers bloom “.

Black skinny jeans, tattooed forearms, full bar: Boric wants to become President of Chile – at the age of 35. It is probably the most exciting election since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship. Because it’s also about their legacy.

Selfie with left: Presidential candidate Boric with supporters.

Build: AP

Opposing candidate Kast also relies on the connecting selfie element.

Image: AFP

Social uprising candidate

Boric became known as one of the leaders of the student protests of 2011, three years later he moved into parliament and in 2017 helped found the left-wing citizen coalition “Frente Amplio”. For the first time since Chile’s return to democracy, a third option emerged, alongside the two traditional party alliances – and won 20 percent straight away.

Even then you could feel that something was out of balance in the country that has always been considered an oasis and model in South America: with constant economic growth, a good investment climate, political stability. But even then the facade crumbled, in October 2019 it collapsed.

Gabriel Boric stands for a break with neoliberalism in Chile.

Image: EPA

A comparatively meager increase in the metropolitan price triggered a wave of protests such as Chile had never seen before. Hundreds of thousands were on the streets – with anger at an elite who primarily cares for their own interests, while the majority have to go into debt to pay for rent, education and health care.

At the center of criticism: Chile’s constitution. It dates from the days of the dictator Augusto Pinochet. He not only had people tortured and murdered, but also turned Chile into a neoliberal experimental laboratory. Almost everything is still in private hands today: pensions, electricity, even the water supply. Many see this as the main reason for the extreme social inequality in the country.

The Chilean way

And that is about to change: a year ago, in October 2020, an overwhelming majority of Chileans voted for a new constitution to be drawn up. “Chile is also looking for a democratic way to channel the anger on the streets”, says the political scientist Claudia Heiss from the University of Chile, a possible answer to political disaffection, social inequality and marginalization.

In the constituent assembly there are as many women as men, plus representatives of the indigenous peoples who did not appear in the old Carta Magna. Boric has already indicated that he would support the constitutional process: “It stands for the change that we need,” says 40-year-old doctor Lidia Calderón, “for a state that cares about the well-being of its citizens”.

Dig instead of wall

But the challenges are great for the left, which is also dependent on a coalition with the Communist Party: The pandemic has hit Chile hard, the social problems have grown, and in the south of the country the conflict over land with the indigenous people is coming to a head Mapuche continues to grow – at the same time, uncertainty and xenophobia have increased. A mood from which another candidate benefits: José Antonio Kast.

José Antonio Kast frankly admits how much he sympathizes with ex-US President Trump.

Image: EPA

In the campaign spot he stands on Chile’s dusty and barren border with Bolivia and calls for “a trench three meters wide and three meters deep” against illegal immigration. He shares convictions with ex-US President Donald Trump, explains Kast – child of German post-war immigrants, dog lover and former defender of the Pinochet dictatorship. The 55-year-old wants to resign from the UN Human Rights Council and resolve the conflict in the south militarily. He considers a new constitution to be unnecessary. The existing one ultimately made Chile one of the economically most successful countries in Latin America.

In the last few weeks he has drawn level with Boric in the polls and has moderated his discourse. “We will break down the traditional political borders,” he explains over breakfast to the international press, which he wrongly describes as “extreme right”: “Are all Chileans who vote for me right-wing extremists? That is not true. They are Common sense people who want their freedom back! “

The whole region is under tension

Diego Aitte, for example: the 30-year-old entrepreneur comes from Las Condes, a conservative bastion. Kast represents order and security, says Aitte. The constitution-creating assembly, on the other hand, leads him directly into a “left dictatorship” with Boric as the “omnipotent president”. While observers predicted a clear victory for the left in the election a few months ago, that no longer seems so clear.

Patricio Fernández, journalist and representative of the Constitutional Convention, is not surprised. “We experienced a moment of great transformation, but we are now also experiencing the fears that the change and all the changes will bring with it,” he says.

Will Chile’s next government accompany or reject the constitutional process? Will the neoliberal model country become the cradle of a new left in South America or will a right-wing populist with nostalgia for old dictatorship take over? Sunday’s election is also being watched with bated breath across the region.


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