Former Chilean congressman José Antonio Kast is such an enormous fan of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the brutal right-wing dictator who ruled the country from 1973 to 1990, that he abandoned his far-right political party four years ago because, in his eyes, it wasn’t devoted enough to the advancement of the late tyrant’s legacy.
This weekend, he could become Chile’s next president.
Kast, whose father served in the Nazi army and whose family has deep ties to the Pinochet dictatorship, led all candidates in the first round of Chile’s presidential election in November. Pre-election polls now show a tightening race ahead of Sunday’s second-round vote, which will pit Kast against center-left congressman Gabriel Boric, a former student movement leader who finished second in the first round but has led most surveys conducted over the last month.
A victory for Kast would make him the latest right-wing leader to surge from the fringes of politics to the pinnacle of power in a major Western Hemispheric democracy: Anti-immigrant, anti-gay, and most of all anti-anything he deems “communism,” Kast has drawn comparisons to far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and former U.S. leader Donald Trump.
“He shares issue positions that we see in other countries where the far right has come to power,” said Jennifer Pribble, a Chilean politics expert at the University of Richmond. “Stylistically, he’s quite different from Bolsonaro and Trump. In terms of his rhetoric, he is less bombastic in the way that he presents himself. But his issue positions are still very radical.”
A Kast win would swing Chile far to the right, and likely only exacerbate the political and social turmoil that has gripped the country and eroded faith in its institutions since 2019, when massive street protests erupted across the country. Perhaps even more important, it could imperil the main political legacy of those protests: a constitutional convention tasked with replacing Chile’s Pinochet-era constitution, which survived the end of the dictatorship, with a new governing document that would provide Chile a plausible path out of the tumult.
“The ability of Chile to get out of its current crisis of democratic legitimacy rides very heavily on this constitutional rewrite, and its ability to produce a new set of rules that have democratic legitimacy, and that people want to believe in and will start to invest in,” Pribble said.
Long considered the most stable of South America’s nations, Chile has spent the last two years mired in multiple quagmires that have combined to create an angsty political crossroads, one that wouldn’t be terribly unfamiliar to Americans, Brazilians or citizens of any number of the world’s other turbulent and potentially imperiled democracies.
In 2019, a proposed hike in subway fares in Santiago sparked small demonstrations that ultimately erupted into nationwide protests against the country’s governing political elite. The causes and motivations of the demonstrations were plenty and diverse, but the ire extended to an economic system that, renowned as it may be among market enthusiasts, many Chileans have come to believe is not working for them: The market-friendly reforms initiated under the dictatorship receive loads of credit for turning Chile into a rich country, but it also remains one of the most unequal of the world’s wealthiest nations, and the protests were driven in part by anger over a lack of equitable access to basic social services like health care and pensions.
The collapse of Venezuela’s economy, meanwhile, sparked mass immigration across Chile’s northern border, which generated backlash from local communities. Land disputes between Mapuche Indigenous peoples and the Chilean government erupted in the south. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, exacerbating both the feeling of all-encompassing turmoil and the social spending and economic concerns that had fueled the protests.
The situation has caused the near-total collapse of Chile’s traditionally powerful political parties on both the right and center left. After approving the drafting of a new constitution via referendum in 2020, Chileans largely chose political independents as delegates to the convention charged with writing it. Major party candidates barely registered in the first round of voting in early November: The third-place finisher behind Kast and Boric, in fact, was a candidate who ran his campaign virtually from Alabama and never set foot in Chile during the campaign.
In that context, the runoff may look at first glance like a battle between extremes: a pro-dictatorship right-winger whose uncle served as one of Pinochet’s “Chicago Boys” — the University of Chicago-educated acolytes of economist Milton Friedman who designed Chile’s market-oriented economy during the dictatorship — against Boric, who promised this year that “if Chile was the birthplace of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave.”
Much as it did three years ago in Brazil, this has caused fits of apparent consternation in elites both within Chile and outside the country. Bloomberg’s editorial board, fearful that “Chile’s economic miracle is at risk” in the election, posited this month that “it’s hard to say which of these two agendas might prove more toxic,” the sort of equivocation that removes any lingering doubt about where the market interests really stand.
Kast has been more than happy to play up the idea that he represents a firewall against the return of a supposedly “radical” left that Pinochet and his allies — including the United States and its major business lobbies — sought to vanquish a half-century ago, when the Chilean military overthrew the government of Socialist President Salvador Allende. During a recent trip to Washington, Kast met with 20 American corporate leaders and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), a Republican who has embraced Bolsonaro and other leaders of the Latin American right wing. (Kast named his new political party the Partido Republicano, and has seemingly sought to align it with the GOP on climate denialism, immigration and other issues.)
Boric, though, is hardly as far left as he’s often made out to be. He’s left the student protest movement he once helped lead to form a new political coalition, and he has drawn the ire of the Communist Party of Chile, which is part of his supporting coalition, for criticizing the authoritarian governments of Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba. He also faced criticism for backing the new constitutional convention, which elements of the left opposed.
His platform features calls to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy, as well as on certain energy sectors to pay for green climate investments. And he’d like to overhaul Chile’s privatized pension system to transition to a public scheme that would issue larger monthly payouts. For the most part, he proposes a reining in and reimagining of Chile’s market economy, not a complete overhaul.
On social issues, the 36-year-old college graduate wouldn’t find himself out of place in most progressive circles within the U.S. and Europe: He favors expanding abortion access and bolstering LGBTQ and women’s rights, and says he wants to take an aggressive approach to climate change.
“He’s much more of a European social democrat than the traditional left-wing leaders of Latin America,” said Oliver Stuenkel, an international relations professor at Brazil’s Getulio Vargas Foundation.
Chile has moved left on a host of those social issues in recent years ― its Congress just legalized same-sex marriage last week, and it has considered loosening abortion restrictions ― although Boric still has work to do to energize traditional bases of left support that may not be quite as socially progressive. If he succeeds, though, Boric could become “the face of a new generation” of progressive Latin American leaders, Stuenkel said.
Kast, by contrast, is every bit the right-winger he claimed to be. Like Bolsonaro and Trump before him, he has fashioned himself as a nationalist protector of the Chilean identity — by which he means a very specific Chilean identity.
He has accused the Mapuche peoples of “terrorism” in its land disputes against the government; the Mapuche, who make up roughly 12% of Chile’s population, have demanded the return of lands that were seized during Pinochet’s rule, and have at times clashed with Chilean police and security forces. Kast has weaponized anti-immigrant sentiment in northern border towns, and broadly accused migrant Venezuelans, in particular, of drug trafficking and crime.
Law and order is at the center of his pitch: “We are going to be free from crime and violence,” he promised Chileans in November.
It was a move meant to stoke fears of chaos rather than to allay them: Although Chile’s murder rate rose slightly in 2020, it remains one of the Americas’ least violent nations, and overall rates of violent crime and other illegal activity have not meaningfully changed from the levels they’ve maintained over the last two decades.
But migrants and the Indigenous aren’t likely to be his only targets. Kast has seized on violence that occurred during the protests to argue for new presidential powers experts fear could threaten basic civil liberties. During the first round, he proposed the creation of a new security force charged with maintaining “public order” — an idea that harks back to the days of the dictatorship, which killed or disappeared at least 3,200 political opponents and used secret police forces to silence and harass countless others.
“He wanted to have a new state of exception measure that would allow the president to order citizens arrested and kept in secret prisons, basically, without immediately letting courts know,” said Jorge Contesse, a Chilean constitutional and human rights lawyer at Rutgers University. “That’s essentially the system that existed under Pinochet. The difference is that under Kast, it would be a legalized, formalized system in which the president himself has the authority to order people arrested.”
His pitch has played to an older, conservative base of Chileans that still favor either the hardline approaches of the Pinochet dictatorship to the left, or associate the brutal, authoritarian years primarily with the economy that resulted from them. And as it did for Trump and Bolsonaro, the hardcore focus on “law and order” has has helped attract support from more moderate Chileans who may not long for the days of dictatorship but are worn out by the constant sense of turmoil and discontent that has gripped the country.
“The 2019 protests called everything into question,” Pribble said. “It’s a questioning of the economic model, it’s a questioning of the predominant social protection systems, a questioning of the constitution. In that context of so much change, I think Kast’s argument about order connected with voters who might feel overwhelmed by the uncertainty of what lies ahead.”
The election will hinge on which candidate can turn out voters who chose other options during the first round, and which issue those Chileans choose to prioritize: Many of the voters who favored other candidates, Pribble said, wanted the next president to improve the pension and social welfare state but are also deeply concerned with immigration and security issues.
If it’s order and an end to the constant sense of turmoil most Chileans want, though, Kast likely isn’t the candidate to provide it.
Neither Kast nor Boric will have an easy time advancing the most ambitious aspects of their agenda through Chile’s sharply divided Congress. Kast, though, is more likely to use the presidential bully pulpit to both implement certain policies via executive order and to undermine the constitutional convention, which he opposes.
Boric, who broke with parts of his coalition to support the convention, is heavily wedded to a positive outcome from it. Kast, on the other hand, “is someone who has said, we don’t need a new constitution,” Contesse said. “He would do everything within his power, which is quite a lot, to either stop or boycott the process.”
The convention is required to draft and produce a new constitution by next July, and Chileans will have to approve it in a subsequent referendum. More than three-quarters of Chilean voters approved of the idea of a new constitution in 2020, but only about half of the country turned out for the vote. Opponents have constantly attacked the convention since, and a president who opposes it – and the end of the current protections for dictatorship-era officials and lawmakers – could help mobilize opposition that undermines the convention or defeats the constitution in the referendum.
A Kast victory, Contesse fears, would likely spell doom for a constitutional process meant to help Chile out of its current fog, and further erode confidence in the country’s political system. That frustration and discontent would likely manifest in more protests, which under Kast would likely be met by an even heavier-handed response than current President Sebastián Piñera delivered in 2019, when the government, military and police violently cracked down on demonstrators.
“Without a new constitution, you won’t be able to contain the pressure that became impossible to contain two years ago,” Contesse said. “If you project that onto a potential Kast presidency, in my view it would be a disaster.”