A leftist millennial who rose to prominence during anti-government protests was elected Chile’s next president Sunday after a bruising campaign against a free-market firebrand likened to Donald Trump.
With 68 percent of 46,887 polling stations reporting, Gabriel Boric had 55 percent of the votes, compared to 45 percent for his opponent, lawmaker José Antonio Kast.
Kast recognized defeat and called his opponent to congratulate him on his “grand triumph” as supporters of Boric gathered in downtown Santiago to celebrate.
Kast, who has a history of defending Chile’s past military dictatorship, finished ahead in the first round of voting last month but failed to secure a majority of votes. That set up a head-to-head runoff against Boric, who finished two points behind.
Boric is the first candidate elected president after losing the first round. He was able to reverse the difference by expanding beyond his base in the capital, Santiago, and attracting voters in rural areas who don't side with political extremes. For example, in the northern region of Antofagasta, where he finished third in the first round of voting, he trounced Kast by about 20 points.
The two candidates couldn't be more polar opposites.
Kast, 55, a devout Roman Catholic and father of nine, emerged from the far right fringe after having won less than 8% of the vote in 2017. He rose steadily in the polls this time with a divisive discourse emphasizing conservative family values and playing on Chileans' fears that a surge in migration — from Haiti and Venezuela — is driving crime.
A longtime lawmaker, he has a record of attacking Chile's LGBTQ community and advocating more restrictive abortion laws. He also accused outgoing President Sebastian Pinera, a fellow conservative, of betraying the economic legacy of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the country’s former military leader. Kast's brother, Miguel, was one of Pinochet's top advisers.
Boric, 35, became Chile’s youngest modern president. He was among several activists elected to Congress in 2014 after leading protests for higher quality education. If elected, he said, he will “bury” the neoliberal economic model left by Pinochet and raise taxes on the “super rich” to expand social services, fight inequality and boost protections of the environment.
In recent days, both candidates tried to veer toward the center.
“I'm not an extremist. ... I don't feel far right,” Kast proclaimed in the final stretch even as he was dogged by revelations that his German-born father had been a card-carrying member of Adolf Hitler's Nazi party.
Meanwhile Boric, who is backed by a coalition of leftist parties that includes Chile's Communist Party, brought more centrist advisers onto his team and promised that any changes would be gradual and fiscally responsible.
“On both sides, people are voting out of fear,” said Robert Funk, a political scientist at the University of Chile. “Neither side is particularly enthused with their candidate but they are voting out of fear that, if Kast wins, there will an authoritarian regression or because they fear Boric is too young, inexperienced and aligned with the communists.”
In addition, the political rules could soon change because a newly elected convention is rewriting the country's Pinochet-era constitution. The convention — the nation's most powerful elected institution — could in theory call for new presidential elections when it concludes its work next year and if the new charter is ratified in a plebiscite.