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Chile to vote for a new president amid fears of mass protests

A neck-and-neck race is underway between an ultra-conservative lawyer and a former student activist.

Image: Shutterstock/roibu

POLLS OPEN IN Chile today with voters facing a choice between far-right and leftist candidates for their president.

The country of 19 million people is on edge, fearing renewed mass protests in response to the outcome of the neck-and-neck race between ultra-conservative lawyer Jose Antonio Kast, 55, and former student activist Gabriel Boric, a millennial 20 years his junior.

The new president will be expected to lead Chile through a period of constitutional change amid a clamor for social reform.

For a country that has voted centrist since the democratic ousting of brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet 31 years ago, there is a stark choice between two political outsiders — one promising a “social welfare” state, the other a continuation of Chile’s neoliberal economic model.

Many fear the socially and fiscally conservative policies of law-and-order candidate Kast — an apologist for Pinochet, anti gay-marriage and abortion, and a proponent of cutting taxes and social spending.

Others are put off by Boric’s political alliance with the Communist Party, which many in Chile equate with the failure of Venezuela, from where it hosts many migrants widely blamed for a rise in crime.

Socially-liberal Boric, who has taken up the mantle of Chile’s 2019 anti-inequality uprising, has vowed to increase social spending in a country with one of the world’s largest gaps between rich and poor.

‘Very nervous’ 

“I am very nervous, with stomach pain,” Boric voter Carol Bravo, a 34-year-old barista, told AFP ahead of the vote, perplexed by Kast’s success but nevertheless hopeful that her candidate will prevail.

“I’ve talked it over with my friends and we’ve decided that if the other candidate (Kast) wins, we will take to the streets. We are afraid… but it is that or accept our destiny, a destiny of disaster and fascism.”

Kast voter Fanny Sierra, a 30-year-old who works in human resources, said she would vote against “communism.”

“I think that communism is very bad for a country,” she told AFP.

Kast edged out six other candidates in the first presidential election round in November to end up in the top spot with 27.9 percent of the vote.

Boric came second with 25.8 percent.

embedded6339081 Jose Antonio Kast holds his closing campaign rally Source: Esteban Felix/AP/PA

Both candidates have softened their policy proposals in a bid to appeal to Chileans who were left without an obvious candidate when they split the centrist vote in the first round, leaving only the two antipodes.

“I am going to vote, but I don’t know who for,” said Amazon employee Javiera Otto, 24, who was planning to do some last-minute research to determine who is “the lesser evil.”

Will hope or fear tip the scales?

“Fear, to be honest. There is no real hope because I don’t like either” candidate.
“I don’t want that we become a second Venezuela… but neither do I want a far-right government.”

There will be ‘noise’

Chile has a high abstention rate, with about 50 percent of its 15 million eligible voters regularly giving the ballot box a wide berth.

The country is going through profound change after voting overwhelmingly last year in favor of drawing up a new constitution to replace the one enacted in the Pinochet years.

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This was in response to an anti-inequality social uprising in 2019 that left dozens dead.

The drafting process, in the hands of a largely left-leaning body elected in May, must yield a constitution for approval next year, on the new president’s watch.

The campaign has been polarized, with much antagonistic messaging and fake news offensives.

“It is a competition focused on discrediting the competitor,” University of Santiago analyst Marcelo Mella told AFP, to the detriment of any real policy discussion.

embedded6339083 Gabriel Boric waves to supporters at a campaign rally Source: Matias Delacroix/AP/PA

Closing his campaign on Thursday, father-of-nine Kast vowed that “Chile is not, and will never be, a Marxist or communist country.”

Boric, for his part, said his rival “will only bring instability, more hate and violence.”

Analyst Patricio Nava of New York University told AFP there is likely to be unrest, or at least unease, ahead.

“There is going to be some noise, be it in the stock markets (if Boric wins) or in the streets (in the case of Kast).”

Whoever ends up victorious, governing will not be easy with a Congress split just about 50-50, requiring negotiation on every policy proposal, and compromise.

Polls opened at 8:00 am (1100 GMT) and will close at 6:00 pm. Results are expected within hours.

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