Chile Looks Set for Runoff in Polarized Presidential Vote
(Bloomberg) -- Chileans headed to the polls Sunday to choose between diametrically opposed paths to address growing social demands that have been laid bare by the pandemic and two years of popular unrest.
Voters chose between seven contenders for the top job, including conservative Jose Antonio Kast and leftist Gabriel Boric, the two front-runners in opinion surveys. They will also elect deputies for the 155-member lower house and about half of the senate. Polls, which were expected to close at 6 p.m. local time, will remain open as long as people are still in line to vote. Official results will begin to be published shortly after.
The elections, which are likely headed for a runoff, will determine the future of Chile’s investor-friendly economic model that has sustained rapid growth for decades but left many citizens behind. Kast wants to double down on the free-market system by slashing taxes and public spending, while Boric envisions a bigger state and higher corporate levies. In parallel, a new constitution is being drafted and will be voted on in 2022, with constituent assembly members closely watching the outcome of the elections.
If no presidential candidate obtains at least 50% of the vote, the top two will face off again on Dec. 19. Voting in Chile isn’t obligatory and turnout has been below 50% in recent elections, though participation rates appeared better than expected Sunday.
“So far we’ve seen a good turnout which we hope continues through the afternoon,” government spokesman Jaime Bellolio said. “We know a lot of people are suffering from the high temperatures, long waits and lines.”
The protests and political uncertainty have upended the usually stable local financial markets. Stocks have swung wildly this year and the currency has lost 14% of its value, the worst in emerging markets after the Turkish lira and Argentine peso.
Chile’s next president will be tasked with trying to sustain the economic recovery from the pandemic. Growth will slow to near 2% in 2022 from about 11% this year as the central bank raises its interest rate to fight inflation and the government reduces stimulus spending. A series of controversial pension withdrawals have also led to an overheating of the economy.
At a voting center in the capital Santiago, people huddled together in the shade to protect themselves from the heat with some visibly surprised at the length of the line wrapping around the corner.
“There appears to be more people than in previous elections,” Daniela Gutierrez, a 35-year-old professor, said. “I hope the country chooses the path of greater equality. But there also needs to be economic stability, that’s important.”
Boric, a 35-year-old former student leader, has ridden the wave of anti-establishment protests that broke out in October 2019, to position himself as the candidate of the left that will deliver on the demands for a better social welfare system and address inequality. He’s been forced to distance himself from his Communist Party allies in recent days, who praised the recent re-election of Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega in a process widely seen as undemocratic.
Kast, 55, has risen in polls in recent months at the expense of the ruling party candidate with a message of law and order, the preservation of the liberal economic system and conservative family values. He’s been criticized for sympathizing with former dictator Augusto Pinochet and stoking anti-immigrant sentiment.
Centrist candidates Senator Yasna Provoste and former Social Development Minister Sebastian Sichel can’t be counted out as they attempt to gain votes from people looking for an option away from the two extremes.
Franco Parisi, of the People’s Party, is currently residing in the U.S. and didn’t take part in recent debates. Outgoing President Sebastian Pinera, who survived an impeachment motion last week, has seen his approval rating slump to about 16%.
Martina Orostica, a 19-year-old university student, said turnout looked better than a referendum earlier this year.
“It’s exciting. Last time there were no lines,” she said. “This process is super important for the country and hopefully it’s not just a segment of the population that votes.”
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