Santiago, Chile – Chileans will head to the polls this weekend to elect their next president, legislators and regional council members in a climate of uncertainty following two years of political flux.
“This is a very important election,” said Daniela Campos Letelier, a member of the Red de Politologas network of women political scientists. “It is quite complex,” she told Al Jazeera. “This election will define various forces in the political system.”
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Seven presidential candidates will be on the ballot in Sunday’s election, but recent polls all indicated two clear frontrunners: on the left and far-right.
Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old congressman and former student movement leader, represents the left-wing Apruebo Dignidad coalition, while Jose Antonio Kast, a 55-year-old lawyer and former congressman, is the far-right candidate of the Christian Social Front coalition.
Trailing Boric and Kast by a substantial margin are Sebastian Sichel, a former official in outgoing President Sebastian Pinera‘s administration from the centre-right ruling alliance, and Yasna Provoste, a senator representing centre-left parties.
If, as is expected, no presidential candidate obtains an outright majority on Sunday, the top two contenders will face each other in a December 19 run-off election. The president-elect will take office on March 11, 2022 for a four-year term, and consecutive terms are not permitted.
Voters will also elect all 155 members of the lower house of Congress to four-year terms, 27 of 50 senators, and regional council representatives.
The election takes place in an altered political landscape in Chile following an explosion of social unrest in October 2019 that saw sustained mass protests for structural change.
For months prior to the coronavirus pandemic, and periodically more recently, demonstrators called for overhauls of the pension and health systems and a new constitution, among a myriad of other demands. Human rights groups documented thousands of abuses by police and military forces against protesters, including extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual assault, and more than 400 eye injuries mostly caused by police buckshot projectiles and tear gas canisters.
As a result of those demonstrations, Chileans earlier this year elected an all-citizen convention with gender parity and Indigenous representatives to draft a new constitution to replace the nation’s dictatorship-era document. Independent and leftist candidates gained ground in the May vote for mayors, local councils, governors, and constitutional convention representatives.
Sunday’s vote also comes on the heels of impeachment proceedings against Pinera, whose presidential term ends in March, over a controversial mining deal. He was impeached last week by the lower house of Congress, but the Senate voted on Tuesday against the motion.
Political scientist Beatriz Vega, also a member of Red de Politologas, cautioned against assuming a runoff between frontrunners Boric and Kast is necessarily a done deal. Polls ahead of some other recent votes have been way off the mark, she noted.
“There are many people who decide their vote in the last week,” Vega told Al Jazeera. “It is difficult to predict what will happen.”
Candidates wrapped up their campaigns on Thursday night in different parts of the country. Virtual and smaller events were more common than mass rallies during the two-month campaign period due to pandemic restrictions and precautions.
At a livestreamed final event in Valparaiso, Boric highlighted some of the keystones of his social democratic agenda, including a more equal and inclusive economic development model, progressive social policies, and climate change mitigation.
In one of the wealthier districts of Greater Santiago, Kast wrapped up his campaign with a rally where he reaffirmed his vow to tackle drugs and violence along with other cornerstones of his campaign. Kast’s tough stance on crime has wide appeal.
He has hardline positions against immigration, LGBTQ rights, and reproductive rights, and some of his other views have generated substantial alarm. He has advocated for persecution of the left and for executive power to pre-emptively detain “agitators” in unknown locations if needed to avoid social unrest in the future.
Recently, Kast has openly defended the 1973-1990 military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and minimised its victims. Tens of thousands of people were imprisoned under Pinochet, more than 3,000 were executed or forcibly disappeared, and there was widespread use of torture.
‘People want change’
“I was a political prisoner back then,” Luis Roja told Al Jazeera at a small protest on Thursday night in downtown Santiago, where people were calling for the freedom of demonstrators jailed during crackdowns on the mass protests that began in October 2019.
Now 65, Roja was actively involved in Catholic faith-based human rights activism in the 1980s alongside “worker priest” Mariano Puga. In 1985, Roja and others were arrested during a pilgrimage to mark the anniversary of the September 11, 1973 coup.
The group was planning to throw red flowers into the river that runs through the capital to honour dissidents who were executed and disappeared, he said. Roja was released several days later and went into hiding.
“We slept in our clothes and with our boots on. We had a ladder over to the house next door,” he said when asked how he feels when he hears Kast defending the military dictatorship.
“I have always been in the streets,” said Roja, while Carabineros police and a water cannon truck moved in on the rally. He has been arrested twice at protests in the past two years, but said his own history compels him to continue speaking out for protesters more recently jailed, injured or killed.
One of the main slogans in October 2019 was that the protests were not about the 30 pesos increase in metro fares that sparked day-one student actions, but instead about the past 30 years, noted Campos Letelier.
Since Chile’s return to democracy in 1990, the presidency has alternated between the political forces represented by Sichel and Provoste, neither of whom is a leading contender in Sunday’s vote.
“There is a rejection and at the same time a warning,” said Campos Letelier. “People want real political change.”