Chileans vote in highly polarized presidential election

SANTIAGO, Chile – Chileans will vote for a new president on Sunday following a polarizing campaign in which leading candidates pledged to chart radically different paths for the region’s most economically advanced country, shaken by a recent wave of social unrest.

Pre-election polls show large numbers of undecided voters but have always favored two of the seven contenders: former student protest leader Gabriel Boric and his ideological opposite, José Antonio Kast, who has always defended Chile’s military dictatorship .

But neither should garner enough support to cross the 50% threshold required to avoid a runoff next month. Within striking distance of the two favorites are center-right candidate Sebastián Sichel and former center-left education minister Yasna Provoste. The entire lower house of the Chilean Congress, which has 155 seats, and about half of the Senate are also up for grabs.

Boric, 35, would become Chile’s youngest modern president. He was one of several student activists elected to Congress in 2014 after leading protests for better and better education. Running at the head of a broad alliance that includes the Chilean Communist Party, if elected, he says he will raise taxes on the “super-rich” to expand social services and strengthen environmental protection .

He also pledged to eliminate the country’s private pension system – one of the hallmarks of free trade reforms imposed in the 1980s by the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

Kast, 55, of the newly formed Republican Party until recently, was seen as an outsider to the far-right fringe, having garnered less than 8% of the vote in 2017 as an independent. But he has steadily risen in the polls this time with a divisive speech emphasizing conservative family values ​​as well as attacking migrants – many from Haiti and Venezuela – whom he blames for the crime.

A devout Roman Catholic and father of nine, Kast has also targeted incumbent President Sebastian Pinera for allegedly betraying Pinochet’s economic legacy, which his brother helped implement as chairman of the dictator’s central bank.

Whoever wins will take control of a country in the throes of a major change but uncertain of its future after decades of centrist reforms that have largely left Pinochet’s economic model intact.

Pinera’s decision to increase metro fares in 2019 sparked months of massive protests that quickly turned into a nationwide clamor for more accessible public services, revealing the crumbling foundations of the ‘economic miracle’ from Chile.

Severely weakened by the unrest, Pinera reluctantly accepted a plebiscite on rewriting the constitution of the Pinochet era. In May, the assembly responsible for drafting the new magna carta was elected and is expected to conclude its work in the course of next year.

Meanwhile, in a further sign of the tensions Pinera will leave behind, the billionaire president was impeached in the lower house before avoiding impeachment by the senate over an offshore trade deal in which his family sold him. ten years ago his participation in a mining project when he was serving the first of two non-consecutive terms.

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