Chile’s far-right Kast leads in first round of presidential election as runoff looms – Reuters Canada

SANTIAGO, Nov 21 (Reuters) – Chile is headed for a polarized presidential election runoff next month as hard-right former congressman Jose Antonio Kast held the lead in the first-round vote on Sunday ahead of leftist lawmaker and former protest leader Gabriel Boric.

With 80.54% of the vote counted, Kast had 28.15% versus 25.32% for Boric, with a sizeable gap between them and the rest of the field, although both were well short of the majority needed to win outright.

More moderate, center-right candidates performed well, a potential boost for Kast in the Dec. 19 runoff.

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The election, the copper-producing Andean country’s most divisive since its 1990 return to democracy, has split voters between those seeking a shake-up of Chile’s free-market model and those demanding a harder line against crime and immigration.

Kast, a 55-year-old father of nine, has praised the neo-liberal “economic legacy” of former dictator Augusto Pinochet. His frank talk, across-the-board conservatism and sometimes idiosyncratic policy ideas, such as digging a ditch to curb illegal immigration, have drawn frequent comparisons with former U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

Boric, a 35-year-old lawmaker who led student protests in 2011 demanding improvements to Chile’s education system, has pledged to scrap the nation’s laissez-faire economic model, while strengthening environmental protections and indigenous rights.

“For me, the most important thing is that we establish a country where people have rights,” said 54-year-old lawyer Romario Deluca, while waiting in line to vote for Boric in central Santiago.

“Personal rights, housing, healthcare, no matter your income.”

The election comes after two years of sometimes violent protests by Chileans demanding quality-of-life improvements. The demonstrations helped bring about an ongoing rewrite of the nation’s Pinochet-era constitution and propelled the candidacy of Boric, who for much of the race held a comfortable lead.

But increasing fatigue among Chileans fed up with political violence, combined with a widespread perception that crime is on the rise, has boosted Kast.

Most opinion polls had Kast winning the most votes by a few percentage points, as appeared to be the case on Sunday evening. The likely runoff in December will be extremely competitive.

“He’s going to defeat narco-trafficking, which is doing so much damage to our country,” Gloria Reyes Flores, a 66-year-old widower in the upscale Santiago district of Las Condes, said of the right-wing candidate. “He’s also going to control immigration because there are a lot of immigrants who are coming to do harm to Chile.”

The current president, Sebastian Pinera, is constitutionally barred from seeking re-election.

KINGMAKERS?

In a surprise, economist Franco Parisi, who is living abroad and did not set foot in Chile during the campaign, was in third place with over 13% of the vote. That could bode well for Kast, who while more to the right on social and cultural issues, shares many of Parisi’s conservative economic beliefs.

Center-right candidate Sebastian Sichel and center-left Yasna Provoste were just behind, both with around 12%.

Kast and Boric will be scrambling to pick up Sichel, Parisi and Provoste voters in a second round, making the more moderate contenders potential kingmakers.

“I am not going to vote for Gabriel Boric’s candidacy, and I have programmatic differences with Kast, but I will communicate any decision later,” Sichel said as the results came in, adding he had congratulated Kast on making it to a second round.

“I don’t want the extreme left to win in Chile.”

If either of the two leading candidates manages to clear 2 million votes, said Kenneth Bunker, director of political consultancy Tresquintos, it could be a good indicator that they have broadened their bases sufficiently to win a second round.

Also up for grabs on Sunday night are all 155 seats in Chile’s lower house, 27 of the 50 seats in the country’s upper house and all positions in the nation’s 16 regional councils.

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Reporting by Gram Slattery and Natalia A. Ramos Miranda; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Peter Cooney

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Chile’s far-right Kast leads in first round of presidential election as runoff looms – Reuters Canada

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