Chileans vote for new president in fast-changing political landscape
Publicado: 21/11/2021

Chileans vote for new president in fast-changing political landscape

Santiago (AFP) -

Chileans began voting Sunday in their fourth election in 18 months, this time to choose a new president among seven candidates, with the winner overseeing the drafting of the country's first post-dictatorship constitution.

The election marks the most wide open contest since the 1990s, and may well buck Chile's traditional political cycle, with the two favorites not among the established coalitions that have governed for the past three decades.

Following a campaign scarred by two years of intense social protests, outgoing President Sebastian Pinera was the first public figure to cast his ballot, at a school in the affluent Santiago neighborhood of Las Condes.

'All opinions matter. Come and vote,' he said before television cameras. 'We are capable of resolving our differences in a peaceful way, by voting.'

The poll comes with many Chileans in revolt against deep-rooted inequality, and it follows recent elections for a body that will write the new constitution -- a key demand of the protesters.

That ballot, in May, saw voters massively reject traditional political parties in charge since democracy replaced the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet 31 years ago.

On Sunday, seven hopefuls vie to replace the unpopular Pinera, covering the entire political spectrum.

The favorites are Gabriel Boric, 35, of the leftist Approve Dignity alliance which includes the Communist Party, and far right candidate Jose Antonio Kast, 55, of the Republican Party -- each with about a quarter of stated voter intention.

Both are from minority parties not in government.

Centrists, including the candidate from Pinera's party, proved the least popular in opinion polls that also revealed half of the 15 million eligible voters to be undecided.

'I'm going to vote but I am pretty disappointed,' said Danilo Panes. The 26-year-old took part in 2019 protests and feels none of the candidates have put forward 'alternatives in line with what the people demanded' when they took to the streets.

- High inequality -

The demonstrators denounced low salaries and pensions, poor public health care and education, and in the words of a recent OECD report, 'persistently high inequality' between rich and poor.

This situation was largely blamed on the Pinochet-era constitution, which pundits say has made the country rich through its promotion of private enterprise in all spheres, but at the expense of the poor and working classes.

Dozens of people died in weeks of protests in 2019 that marked Chile's worst social crisis in decades.

The government finally agreed to a referendum, which one year later saw about 80 percent of voters give the go-ahead for a new constitution to be drawn up by an elected body.

Voters in May elected a majority of independent candidates, mainly left-leaning, to that body, which has already started drafting the document.

Chileans also vote to replace the 155-member Chamber of Deputies and almost two-thirds of Senators for a new-look Congress that will be in place when the country decides in a mandatory referendum next year whether to adopt the new constitution.

It is not known how, or if, a changed constitution could impact on the terms or powers of the president.

But the fact that Kast and Boric, a former student leader, are the favorites signals an upending of political norms.

'It can be argued that these are the last elections of the old cycle, since they may end with a different result to the ones that came before,' University of Santiago political scientist Raul Elgueta told AFP.

Also competing are Christian Democrat senator Yasna Provoste, the only candidate who has served in the center-left coalition that ruled for 20 years after the dictatorship; far-left professor Eduardo Artes; and filmmaker and progressive politician Marco Enriquez-Ominami.

- 'A difficult period' -

With his second, non-consecutive term beset by economic and social upheaval, billionaire Pinera approaches the end of his mandate with record-low approval.

The country's economic woes have worsened with the coronavirus epidemic, with unemployment up, inflation at six percent and foreign debt skyrocketing as the demand for social aid and subsidies exploded.

One thing is clear: a large proportion of Chileans want a more interventionist and socially-minded government, better access to public health care and education and changes to the pension system, which is privately administered.

Analysts have also observed a recent rightward swing blamed partly on sometimes violent and arsonist actions by protesters, but also on growing concerns about immigration and crime.

To win in the first round, a candidate must garner 50 percent of votes cast, but analysts believe the election will likely go to a runoff round between the top two contenders on December 19.

Polls remain open until 6:00 pm (2100 GMT), with results expected late Sunday.

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