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Polarized presidential poll awaits Chileans

China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-11-23 09:12

Chilean election officials count ballots at a polling station in Santiago after it was closed on Sunday. [CARLOS VERA/REUTERS]

SANTIAGO, Chile-A right-wing fiscal conservative and a left-wing former student activist will vie to become president of Chile next month, according to media outlets. This comes two years after anti-inequality protests set the country on the path to constitutional change.

Jose Antonio Kast, 55, and Gabriel Boric, 35, took a convincing lead over five rivals in the first voting round on Sunday to pass to the runoff on Dec 19.

According to a near complete count, Kast of the far-right Republican Party took almost 28 percent of the vote, followed closely by leftist lawmaker Boric of the Approve Dignity alliance with nearly 26 percent.

The next closest candidate had less than 13 percent of the vote count.

Voting centers reported high turnout throughout the day, despite high temperatures across most of the country and lengthy waiting times.

As there was not one candidate that secured a 50 percent majority, the top two finishers will compete in a runoff.

Order vs change

In an address to jubilant supporters, Kast vowed to restore "peace, order, progress and freedom" in response to what he said was a clear call "from a majority of Chileans".

Boric, for his part, vowed to work for "unity". "We did not take to the streets for everything to remain the same," he told supporters.

Sunday's poll came two years after dozens of people died during weeks of demonstrations against low salaries and pensions, poor public healthcare and education, and "persistently high inequality" between the rich and poor in the words of a recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Protesters demanded a new Constitution.

The government finally agreed to a referendum, and it gave the go-ahead one year later for a new founding law for Chile to be drawn up by an elected body.

Agence France-Presse reported that Sunday's election continued a recent rout of traditional political parties in charge of decades of neoliberal policy credited with Chile's relative wealth, but blamed for its social inequity.

It started with elections for a new Constitution writing body in May that saw voters rejecting established parties and opting in large part for independent, left-leaning candidates.

Kast and Boric are both from minority parties not in government and not part of the coalitions which have governed Chile since 1990.

Centrists, including Sebastian Sichel, the candidate from President Sebastian Pinera's party, proved to be the least popular.

"On one hand, Kast represents the restoration of order and returning to before the social explosion (of 2019), but with an even stronger hand," analyst Rodrigo Espinoza of the Diego Portales University told AFP.

On the other hand, Boric "represents the deepening of political reforms" as demanded by demonstrators.

New Congress

The country of 19 million people also voted to replace the 155-member Chamber of Deputies and almost two-thirds of senators for a new-look Congress on Sunday.

"We have to vote, the country needs changes," said 24-year-old voter Felipe Rojas. "We are bored with the same politicians."

For Cristina Arellano, a 42-year-old accountant, it was imperative to vote "to turn the page on the division and trouble in the streets".

Boric, who has promised to install a welfare state if he wins, cast his vote in his native city of Punta Arenas in Chile's south. "May hope win out over fear," he said.

Kast has expressed admiration for former president Augusto Pinochet, opposes same-sex marriage and abortion, and campaigned on restoring order and security.

The country's economic woes have worsened with the coronavirus epidemic amid high unemployment, 6 percent inflation and skyrocketing government debt as demand for social aid and subsidies exploded.

But one thing is clear. Many Chileans want a more interventionist and socially minded government, better access to public healthcare and education, and changes to the pension system, which is privately administered.

Agencies - Xinhua

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