Santiago (AFP) -
Chileans voted in presidential elections Sunday, two years after protests that set the country on the path to constitutional change, with two men from opposite political poles leading the field of seven contenders.
It is Chile's fourth election in 18 months, this time for a president who will be in office as the country drafts its first post-dictatorship constitution.
With half of the country's 15 million voters said to be undecided ahead of Sunday's ballot, it is seen as the most wide-open presidential contest in decades.
Coming in the aftermath of a popular revolt against deep social inequality, the election could continue the recent rout of traditional political parties who have governed over decades of neoliberal policy credited with Chile's relative wealth, but criticized for forsaking the poor and working classes.
The two front-runners -- a young leftist former student activist and a far-right ex-congressman -- are not among the established coalitions which have governed Chile for three decades since the exit of dictator Augusto Pinochet.
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 intentions.
Both are from minority parties not in government.
Centrists, including the candidate from unpopular President Sebastian Pinera's party, proved the least popular in opinion polls ahead of the vote.
'We have to vote, the country needs changes,' said voter Felipe Rojas, 24. 'We are bored with the same politicians.'
He complained of long voter queues in the capital, Santiago, on a particularly hot summer's day, with temperatures exceeding 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), saying 'it seems as if they don't want us to vote.'
For Cristina Arellano, a 42-year-old accountant, it was imperative to vote 'to turn the page on the division and trouble in the streets.'
- 'All opinions matter' -
Pinera was the first public figure to cast his ballot, urging others to do the same as 'all opinions matter.'
Sunday's poll comes after elections in May for the body that will rewrite Chile's constitution, a key demand of protesters who took to the streets in October 2019.
Dozens of people died in weeks of demonstrations against 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.
The government finally agreed to a referendum, which one year later gave the go-ahead for a new constitution to be drawn up by an elected body.
Then in May this year, voters elected a majority of independent candidates, mainly left-leaning, to the 'constitutional convention' drafting body.
Chileans will vote in a mandatory referendum next year to adopt or reject the new document.
On Sunday, voters in the country of 19 million will also replace the 155-member Chamber of Deputies and almost two-thirds of senators for a new-look Congress.
'May hope win out over fear,' Boric said as he cast his vote in his native city of Punta Arenas in Chile's south.
'We represent the process of change and transformation that is coming, (albeit) with stability, with necessary gradualness,' he added.
His chief rival Kast, a political opposite who has defended Chile's past autocratic leanings and opposes marriage equality and abortion, said he hoped 'many people will go' to the polls.
The only woman in the race, a 51-year-old Social Democrat and former speaker of the Senate, Yasna Provoste, said voting was 'necessary to restore governance and lost peace.'
- High inequality -
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, amid high unemployment, inflation at six percent and skyrocketing government debt as demand for social aid and subsidies exploded.
One thing is clear: Many 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.
But analysts have also observed a recent rightward swing attributed to sometimes violent protests, but also to growing concerns about immigration and crime at a time that Kast is promising to bring back order and security.
If no candidate wins 50 percent of votes outright, a runoff between the top two contenders will be held on December 19.