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Looking Ahead: Presidential Politics and Chilean Democracy

Date & Time

Nov. 22, 2021
11:30am – 12:30pm ET


Chileans go to the polls on November 21 to elect the country’s next president, members of parliament, and regional councilors.

Going into the election, it appears unlikely that any candidate will garner a majority of votes required to avoid a second round.  Pre-election polls demonstrate that the two top vote-getters will be José Antonio Kast, who left the ultra-conservative Unión Demócrata Independiente party to form Chile’s Republican Party, and Gabriel Boric of the leftist coalition, Apruebo Dignidad. Kast moved into the lead, according to polls, after center-right candidate Sebastián Sichel underperformed in televised debates.

Chile’s presidential race between two candidates with radically different visions of the country’s future reflect a deeply polarized electorate, even as a new Constituent Assembly elected earlier this year goes about rewriting Chile’s magna carta.

The Latin American Program and the Instituto de Asuntos Públicos of the Universidad de Chile analyzed the results of the first round of voting in Chile’s presidential election and what they portend for the future of Chilean democracy.

Selected Quotes

Cynthia J. Arnson

“Chileans went to the polls yesterday in a closely watched and consequential election for Chile’s future, election for president, for the lower house, and for half of the senate. The two leading candidates in the polls, ultra-conservative Jose Antonio Kast and former student leader leftist Gabriel Boric, indeed came in first yesterday, Kast with about 28% of the vote, Boric with 26%.

The two of them will head into a runoff on December 19th, and I think it's notable that together, both candidates only achieved a little over half of the votes cast in yesterday’s election, meaning that the next few weeks will be marked by a scramble for the votes that went to the other candidates who did not move into the runoff. The visions of Kast and Boric could not be more starkly in contrast, between a free market law and order candidate embodied by Kast, and Boric the former student leader resolved to forgive student debt to address the issues that came out in the protest movements in 2019, know as the Estallido Social, the social explosion. The congressional elections also saw the triumph of people who were independents and also representatives of brand new parties, so there is indeed a lot to discuss.”

Watch Clip

Robert Funk

“If you look at the numbers, you know just add that just do the math, say half  [Franco] Parisi got about 900,000 votes, [Sebastián] Sichel got about 900,000 votes, it’s unpredictable what a Parisi voter will do. But say half of those go to Kast, which it’s not unreasonable, I think it’s more likely to go to Kast than to Boric, but we don’t know. Let’s say half of the Sichel voters go to Kast, it could even be more than that but say half, that’s almost a million more votes for Kast. Just that makes it, you know, makes the path easier for Kast than for Boric. And add to that other aspects which here my colleagues have touched on. I think Boric in a way and the Frente Amplio have gone down a path which is not dissimilar to what even the UDI used to be here, what we call testimonial parties right, where they want to represent a certain sector and they want to project a certain message, which is a kind of revindication of the left and on the left which they think was in the past too moderate, and therefore they are going to reclaim not only the language, but also the symbolism and to some degree the policies, although that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but at least language and symbolism of the old left.

So you see Boric last night, when everybody understood that really what he had to do was moderate go out and give a speech where he talks about compañeros and compañeras, and he lifts his fist in the air, and you look out at the public and there is not a single Chilean flag, but there are flags that weren’t, although they looked like because they were black and white, they looked like flags of the MIR, which is a far left group of the 1960s, you see rainbow flags, you see one Chilean flag with a lot of bullet holes in it. So again, it’s in terms of just symbolism, and just language, you see that there’s a kind of attack at activist desire to reclaim something of the past, which comes from the criticism of what the center-left did over the last 30 years. The problem with that of course is that as long as you continue with that criticism, how do you then attract the millions of voters who supported that center left and how do you attract the parties that were part of that center left, which is what he needs to do now. Now he actually got kind of lucky because the socialist party very quickly said, ‘We have to all be against Kast and we are going to go over to Boric, and we are going to support him.’ The Christian Democratic party, not so fast, they are going to have a meeting and a consultation and they are going to decide the way Christian democrats tend to do. So, what I’m seeing is that Boric is very hard for him to leave behind that narrative and that epic that he’s worked so hard to build, and that’s why just that plus the math, makes me think as Jenny said that Kast has an easier path.”

Watch Clip

John Bartlett

“Just wanted to follow up there with what Jenny alluded to, with the change of the rules for that election, which is obviously kind of, you know, why it looked different on the face of it and we had all these independents, I think 43% of the candidates who put themselves forward were independents. So I think what that speaks to is a sort of overwhelming will to want to democratize the process there in Chile to include these voices from outside the sort of traditional political class, and they were overwhelmingly elected, independent and sort of relative leftists, I think sort of swept the convention.

If you look at what’s happened then more recently on the issue of independence and since 1989, I think there've only ever been 10 deputies, who’ve been elected as independents, there’s been one senator who’s been elected twice. And then yesterday we saw Fabiola Campillai, a woman from the far peripheral South of Santiago get elected as an independent, which I think was a really interesting case. I think she was able to galvanize a lot of support among people who kind of saw her name on the ballot paper and kind of, you know, felt some kind of identity with her and her struggles. I think that, I’m not sure if you say it was a turning point although there does there is legislation moving very very slowly through Congress at the moment looking to make the rules that we had the constitutional convention elections held under the norm rather than going back to this current system where the barriers for participation for independence are incredibly high. So I think that’s a really interesting conversation to have, and I think that it adds layers on top of what Jenny’s saying about the collapse of the party system.”

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Hosted By

Latin America Program

The Wilson Center’s prestigious Latin America Program provides non-partisan expertise to a broad community of decision makers in the United States and Latin America on critical policy issues facing the Hemisphere. The Program provides insightful and actionable research for policymakers, private sector leaders, journalists, and public intellectuals in the United States and Latin America. To bridge the gap between scholarship and policy action, it fosters new inquiry, sponsors high-level public and private meetings among multiple stakeholders, and explores policy options to improve outcomes for citizens throughout the Americas. Drawing on the Wilson Center’s strength as the nation’s key non-partisan policy forum, the Program serves as a trusted source of analysis and a vital point of contact between the worlds of scholarship and action.  Read more

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