(CN) — Chilean voters have elected leftist Gabriel Boric as president after winning 56% of the vote in the second round, beating José Antonio Kast, an ultraconservative and staunch defender of the Pinochet dictatorship which ruled the country from 1973 to 1990.
Boric heads the broad left-wing Apruebo Dignidad coalition that includes the Christian Left, the Communist Party of Chile, and Boric’s socialist Social Convergence party.
He overcame a first-round defeat to Kast and his Christian Social Front coalition in November, with Boric receiving 26% to Kast’s 28% — below the 50% threshold needed to win in the first round.
The polarized presidential election had reopened memories of the country’s recent dictatorship and its enduring legacy. Kast, whose father was a member of the Nazi party, is a strong defender of Pinochet, and once claimed that “if he were alive, he would have voted for me.” He campaigned on law and order, smaller government, tax cuts and lower social spending while criticizing the LGBTQ community as well as immigration.
Kast had tried to frame the election in terms of liberty versus communism, but Boric, a former student leader and soon to be the country’s youngest president at 35, promises that he will be “a president for all Chileans.”
Boric ran on an agenda to advance LGBTQ and women’s rights, tackle climate change, overhaul the private pension system, and increase corporate taxes and mining royalties to boost social spending that targets inequality.
“Our project means advancing towards more democracy,” said the president-elect in his victory speech. “For the first time, we are writing a constitution democratically with the participation of the native peoples.”
Plans to hike subway fares in 2019 sparked protests that soon broadened into sustained social unrest aimed at increasing inequality and high costs of living. Demands included rewriting Chile’s constitution, which was a product of the Pinochet dictatorship. Sustained pressure led to Congress agreeing to hold a referendum on rewriting the constitution, which was approved by 78% of voters last year.
Boric’s Apruebo Dignidad coalition came together for the constitutional convention election to select candidates to write a draft of the new constitution.
The political center, which has dominated Chile since the return of democracy, saw little action from voters as national politics has stretched into the more radical avenues on the left and right.
“Chilean society is divided by fault lines and breaking points,” said Juan Battaleme, a professor and academic secretary of CARI, one of the most influential think tanks in South America that focuses on international relations.
“The level of polarization has translated into the emptying of the center and the strengthening of the extremes. The social mood in the background to the election has to do with the reform of the constitution and the protests since 2019 that generated greater awareness of social inequalities.”
The Covid-19 pandemic partly extinguished the social unrest sparked at the end of 2019. Yet these two issues became key areas of criticism directed at current president Sebastián Piñera, a billionaire center-right politician.
Piñera’s response to the protests included violent excessive force by the national police, which Human Rights Watch said amounted to human rights violations.
“The government had very low popularity and was questioned during its response to the social unrest and then with the pandemic,” Battaleme said. “The government lacked social sensitivity, which was much discussed and gave air to the left that led to the constitutional reform. It is this combination that, according to analysts, led to the hollowing out of the center in Chile.”
The right also slid farther away from the center while the most progressive elements had won in the reform of the constitution. “This exasperated the most conservative sectors of Chile, which assumed much more defensive positions,” said Battaleme. Many factions on the right circled around Kast, who had denounced protesters and campaigned against the rewriting of the constitution.
Despite the political terrain building at the edges of the political spectrum, Kast conceded defeat within hours of the results on Sunday. “I have congratulated him on his great triumph,” Kast wrote on Twitter, adding that Boric “deserves all our respect and constructive collaboration.”
With Chile set for their most left-wing leader since Salvador Allende, who was overthrown in a coup led by Pinochet in 1973, Boric is unlikely to rethink Chile’s relationship with the United States.
“There are structural relations between Chile and the United States,” said Battaleme. “It would take a lot to change that — the same with the UK and with China. Boric had been running as a moderate, so you would think that he is not going to substantially change these relationships or Chile’s trading-partner policy.”
Nor will Boric shake any of the regional institutions in Latin America, Battaleme predicted.
“Relations with Mercosur [the regional trading bloc] will be maintained. Chile is a very good partner for Brazil and a good partner for Argentina in terms of trade,” he said. “There may be some changes in the positions regarding the OAS, although it is not that Boric will support Nicaragua or Venezuela as they don’t seem to have the edge to make big disruptions in foreign policy because it’s an area that is already polarized.”
Boric faces challenges immediately after inauguration on March 11, with the Senate evenly split between the left and right and a more polarized nation where the center ground has been hollowed out.
James Francis Whitehead is a Courthouse News correspondent based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.