A runoff election between left-wing and far-right frontrunners is expected but not a given.
A far-right former congressman is leading Chile’s presidential election and looks likely to face a runoff with a former student activist.
With nearly 97 percent of the vote counted on Sunday, Jose Antonio Kast had 27.94 percent versus 25.75 percent for Gabriel Boric, with a sizeable gap between them and the rest of the field.
Both were well short of the majority needed for an outright win, meaning Chile is headed for what is likely to be a polarised runoff next month.
The election is Chile’s most divisive since its 1990 return to democracy, splitting voters between those seeking a shake-up of the Andean country’s free-market model and those demanding a harder line against crime and immigration.
Kast, a 55-year-old father of nine, has praised the neo-liberal “economic legacy” of former dictator Augusto Pinochet.
His frank talk, across-the-board conservatism and sometimes idiosyncratic policy ideas, such as digging a ditch to curb illegal immigration, have drawn frequent comparisons with former United States President Donald Trump and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro.
Boric, a 35-year-old legislator who led student protests in 2011 demanding improvements to Chile’s education system, has pledged to scrap the country’s private pension system – one of the hallmarks of the free-market reforms imposed in the 1980s by Pinochet’s dictatorship.
Running as the head of a broad alliance that includes Chile’s Communist Party, if elected, he says he will raise taxes on the “super rich” to expand social services and boost the protection of indigenous people and the environment.
Sunday’s vote comes after two years of sometimes violent protests by Chileans demanding quality-of-life improvements. The demonstrations helped bring about an ongoing rewrite of the nation’s Pinochet-era constitution and propelled the candidacy of Boric, who for much of the race held a comfortable lead.
But increasing fatigue among Chileans fed up with political violence, combined with a widespread perception that crime is on the rise, have boosted Kast.
Most opinion polls had Kast winning the most votes by a few percentage points, as appeared to be the case on Sunday evening. The likely runoff on December 19 will be extremely competitive.
Al Jazeera’s Daniel Schweimler, reporting from Santiago, said supporters gathered at Kast’s campaign headquarters were “euphoric”.
“People here are delighted and very much looking forward to that second round,” he said. “They are playing songs that are talking about security and freedom – the two main planks of Kast’s campaign.”
At Boric’s offices in Santiago, the mood was equally festive.
Al Jazeera’s Lucia Newman said Boric’s supporters are “certainly not ready to concede defeat”.
“People here are saying we can’t allow Kast to take over, we can’t allow a dictatorship to come back in Chile. In fact, they are nicknaming him KKK Kast because of his anti-migrant policies, and they consider [his election] would be a step backwards 30 years for Chilean politics and society,” she said.
“The difference [in support] between the top contenders is very very little. So, anything could happen in a second round and we are going to see a very energised and polarised campaign from now on.”
Newman added that the “big question” of the night was who the candidates from the centre-right and centre-left parties will support.
Kast and Boric will be scrambling to pick up votes from the more moderate, centre-right contenders in a runoff, making these candidates potential kingmakers.
In third place was economist Franco Parisi, who is living abroad and did not set foot in Chile during the campaign. He had more than 13 percent of the vote.
That could bode well for Kast, who, while more to the right on social and cultural issues, shares many of Parisi’s conservative economic beliefs.
Centre-right candidate Sebastian Sichel and centre-left Yasna Provoste were just behind, both with about 12 percent.
“I am not going to vote for Gabriel Boric’s candidacy, and I have programmatic differences with Kast, but I will communicate any decision later,” Sichel said as the results came in, adding he had congratulated Kast on making it to a second round.
“I don’t want the extreme left to win in Chile.”
Meanwhile, Provoste told her supporters on the centre-left that she could never be neutral in the face of a “fascist spirit that Kast represents”.