Not so long ago, democracy was a rare beast in South America. The continent was proverbial as the home of tinpot military rulers, who either rigged elections or dispensed with them altogether. The restoration of civilian democratic rule over the last forty years has been a huge achievement.
Now it seems to be under threat. While only Venezuela has succumbed to dictatorship, a number of countries are under severe strain. Particularly worrying is the polarisation between the extremes of left and right, with the hollowing out of the centre. This is a trend we’ve seen in Europe recently as well, but in South America it’s both more pronounced and more of a problem, since democratic culture and institutions are much more fragile.
Peru’s presidential election earlier this year was a prime example; in a crowded field, it was the candidates on the two extremes who went on into the runoff, in which the far left’s Pedro Castillo narrowly edged out the far right’s Keiko Fujimori.
Now something similar looks like happening in Chile, which goes to the polls on Sunday. Since General Pinochet left office in 1990, the presidency has been primarily contested between centre-left and centre-right; the centre-left has mostly been victorious, the exceptions being the two (non-consecutive) terms of centre-right incumbent Sebastián Piñera.
During Piñera’s second term, however, Chilean politics has been upended. Economic troubles led to massive anti-government protests in 2019, which in turn led to a referendum that voted to draft a new constitution and elections for a constitutional convention this year that showed a big swing to the far left. Not surprisingly, that has now produced a backlash in the form of a rising far-right movement.
The presidential opinion polls tell the story. As far back as August the centre-left’s candidate, Christian Democrat Yasna Provoste, could only manage third place, with the centre-right’s Sebastián Sichel and the far left’s Gabriel Boric fighting it out for the lead. Then Sichel started dropping sharply, his fall matched almost exactly by the rise of a candidate from the far right, José Antonio Kast.
Kast is now leading in the polls, a few points ahead of Boric; both of them are well clear of Sichel, Provoste and another right-wing candidate, Franco Parisi. Unless there’s been a huge failure of polling, far right and far left will contest the runoff in a month’s time. Hypothetical second-round polls put Kast narrowly ahead, although such polls have a fairly poor record.
This is Kast’s second run for the presidency; in 2017 he managed fourth place with 7.9%, well behind centre-right, centre-left and far left. But Piñera’s unpopularity has opened up space for a fresh force on the right, and it may be that Pinochet’s rule is now so far in the past that a degree of nostalgia has taken hold: Kast, like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, is an open admirer of military rule.
Boric is much more of a newcomer – he is only 35, although he has been a member of the legislature since 2014. Previously a student leader, he was the surprise winner of the far left primary in June, convincingly beating the Communist Party candidate. His more conciliatory image raises some hopes that he may be able to avoid the authoritarianism that has been the persistent vice of the South American left.
First, though, he has to beat Kast. Given that the various strands of the left won a large majority in the constitutional convention election just six months ago, that shouldn’t be an impossible task. Sunday’s results will be a clue to just how much has changed in that time.
Elections are also being held for the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the legislature, and for half the Senate. The centre-right is currently the largest force in both houses; that seems certain to change, but the likelihood of either side winning a clear majority seems remote.