Second round in Chile

Chile goes to the polls again on Sunday in the second round of its presidential election, the second-last major election for 2021. In the first round, held four weeks earlier, the two most extreme candidates advanced: the far right’s José Antonio Kast, who led with 27.9%, and the far left’s Gabriel Boric some 146,000 votes behind on 25.8%. (See official results here.)

Not only was Kast in the lead, right-of-centre candidates in total had substantially more of the vote than left-of-centre candidates. That suggested (and most commentary agreed) that Kast was better placed for the runoff, although I offered some reasons why that advantage might not be all it seemed.

Immediately prior to the first round, polls that tested a hypothetical contest between Kast and Boric tended to put Kast in the lead. Since then, however, it’s been the other way around. Of the ten polls in that time listed by Wikipedia, only one has Kast ahead, and that by only 0.3%. The others all put Boric ahead, mostly by fairly clear margins.

Chile forbids the publication of opinion polls in the fortnight preceding the election, so the poll series stops at that point. But two polls published more recently outside the country show a very close race: one has Boric ahead by three points, while the other has Kast leading by two.

So while Boric seems to have a slight edge, this could very much go either way. It looks like being the closest presidential election since at least 2010, when the centre-right beat the centre-left by just over three points.

But there is more at stake this time. Centre-left and centre-right were both eliminated in the first round, so Kast and Boric offer much more sharply contrasting visions for Chile’s future. Both are opposed to the existing constitutional regime, but for opposing reasons: Boric wants to eliminate the constitution’s Pinochet-era protections for the market economy, whereas Kast is an admirer of the dictatorship and wants to undo post-Pinochet reforms such as same-sex marriage.

It seems to me that Boric is the less serious threat to Chilean democracy; he comes from a left-libertarian student activist background, and while I suspect he will run the country’s economy into the ground if he gets the chance, he may be less addicted to authoritarianism than is usual for South America’s far left. Kast, on the other hand, would take Chile down the same road as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

Neither candidate will be able to command a legislative majority. Congress is evenly balanced between left and right, with the more centrist forces on both sides in the majority. But that may be a mixed blessing; a similar divergence between congress and the presidency of Salvador Allende in the early 1970s led Chile to disaster.

It’s possible that we will come to look back on the 1990s and 2000s as a brief golden age of democracy in Latin America. It’s a pity the opportunity was not taken then to replace some of its presidential system with parliamentary ones.

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