SANTIAGO, Chile. On Sunday, Chileans faced a sharp choice between left and right when they began voting in a presidential election that could affect efforts to draft a new constitution.
The race was the most polarizing and violent in the country’s recent history, providing Chileans with vastly different views on a range of issues, including the role of the state in the economy, pension reform, the rights of historically marginalized groups, and public safety.
José Antonio Cast, 55, a former far-right MP who has pledged to fight crime and civil unrest, faces Gabriel Borich, 35, a left-wing MP who is proposing tax increases to tackle entrenched inequality.
The stakes are higher than during the last presidential elections because Chile is at a critical political crossroads. The new president is expected to significantly influence efforts to replace Chile’s 1980 constitution when the country was under military rule. Last year, Chileans voted overwhelmingly in favor of the new bill.
Boric, the leader of the leftist coalition Frente Amplio, has been a staunch supporter of the movement to renew the charter, which was initiated by a wave of protests in late 2019 over Chile’s inequality, cost of living and free market economy. …
On the contrary, Mr. Cast has vigorously opposed the creation of a constitutional assembly, which the Chileans elected in May. This body is tasked with drafting a new charter, which voters will approve or reject by direct vote next September.
Members of the convention see Mr. Cast’s rise as an existential threat to their work, fearing that he will be able to mobilize resources and the president’s cocky pulpit to persuade voters to reject the revised constitution.
“There is so much at stake,” said Patricia Politzer, a member of the convention from Santiago. “The president has tremendous power and he could use the full support of the state to campaign against the new constitution.”
Mr. Cast and Mr. Borich faced force in the final days of the race, each of which presented the prospect of defeat as the disaster predicted for the 19 million South American people. Recent polls have shown that Mr. Boric has a slight edge, although Mr. Cast received the most votes in the first round of voting last month.
Mr Boric called his rival a fascist and criticized several of his plans, which include expanding the penitentiary system and empowering the security forces to tackle indigenous peoples’ land rights concerns in the south of the country more vigorously.
Mr Cast told voters that Boric’s presidency would erode the foundations that made Chile’s economy one of the best in the region and is likely to set the country on a path towards becoming a failing state like Venezuela.
“This campaign was dominated by fear that we had never seen before,” said Claudia Heiss, professor of political science at the University of Chile. “It can be damaging in the long run because it worsens the political climate.”
Mr Boric and Mr Cast have found support among voters who are fed up with the center-left and center-right political factions that have traded power in Chile in recent decades. Current Conservative President Sebastian Piñere’s approval rating has plummeted below 20% over the past two years.
Mr. Boric began his political career as a prominent organizer of major student demonstrations in 2011 that convinced the government to provide free tuition to low-income students. He was first elected to Congress in 2014.
Born in Punta Arenas, Chile’s southernmost province, Boric has taken bold steps to curb global warming, a key promise of his campaign. This included a politically risky proposal to raise fuel taxes.
Mr Boric, who has tattoos and does not like to wear ties, has publicly announced that he was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, a condition for which he was briefly hospitalized in 2018.
After occasionally violent street protests and political unrest sparked by rising metro fares in October 2019, he has pledged to turn a series of generational grievances into a public policy overhaul. Mr Boric said there is a need to raise taxes for corporations and the super-rich to expand the safety net and create a more egalitarian society.
“Today, many older people work to the death after exhausting labor their entire lives,” he said during the final debate of the race, promising to create a system of more generous pensions. “It’s not fair.”
Mr. Cast, the son of German immigrants, served as federal legislator from 2002 to 2018. A father of nine children, he was a staunch opponent of abortion and same-sex marriage. His national credibility rose during the 2017 presidential race, when he won nearly 8 percent of the vote.
Mr Cast called his rival’s proposed spending expansion reckless, arguing that Chile needed a much more compact and efficient state rather than an expanded support system. During his campaign closing speech on Thursday, Mr. Cast warned that electing his opponent would intensify unrest and fuel violence.
Mr. Cast cited “the poverty that devastated Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba” as a warning. “People are fleeing from there because the dictatorship, the drug dictatorship brings only poverty and suffering,” he said.
The message, a return to Cold War language, resonated with voters like Claudio Bruce, 55, who lost his job during the pandemic.
“In Chile, we cannot afford to fall into these types of political regimes because it will be very difficult to recover from it,” he said. “We are at a very dangerous crossroads for our children, for our future.”
Antonia Vera, a recent high school graduate who campaigned for Mr Boric, said she sees his election as the only way to make the grassroots movement for a fairer and more prosperous nation a reality.
“When he talks about hope, he’s talking about a long-term future, a movement that started many years ago and exploded in 2019,” she said.
It will be difficult for the new president to make sweeping changes anytime soon, said Claudio Fuentes, professor of political science at Diego Portales University in Santiago, noting the upcoming congress equally.
“The likelihood of their campaign plans coming to fruition is slim,” he said. “This is a scenario in which it will be difficult to carry out reforms.”
Pascal Bonnefoy reported from Santiago and Ernesto Londono from Rio de Janeiro.