Hopes for a more progressive Chile have been dealt a blow as a far-right candidate surges in opinion polls ahead of the first presidential election since massive demonstrations against inequality erupted in 2019.
A month before the vote, polling shows that the leftwing candidate – former student leader Gabriel Boric – has slipped behind (by one percentage point) José Antonio Kast, a supporter of the dictator Augusto Pinochet, who has suggested digging ditches along the country’s border to stop migrants.
After months of political unrest, voters chose by huge majority to replace the country’s Pinochet-era constitution, and then elected a broadly leftwing convention to complete that task.
But fears over migration, public security and shifting social values have boosted the far right, making the 21 November election a battle between starkly contrasting visions for Chile’s future.
The country has been on edge since September, when anti-migrant violence exploded in Iquique, a port on Chile’s arid northern coast.
After police cleared a camp of homeless Venezuelan families, a xenophobic march culminated with jeering, flag-waving crowds tossing migrants’ belongings on to a bonfire – including children’s toys, nappies and a pram.
“The far right have managed to weaponise migration in the run-up to the election,” says Romina Ramos, a sociologist at Arturo Prat University in Iquique.
“They are playing on fears of a threat to security and Chilean identity – and Kast has been able to present the arrivals as an invasion which must be fought off.”
But other elements are in the mix too: at subsequent demonstrations in Iquique, anti-vaccination banners were brandished alongside others rejecting globalization and the United Nations.
According to government statistics, the number of foreign-born citizens living in Chile more than tripled, to 1.5 million, between 2014 and the end of 2019, while migrants – many fleeing violence and poverty in Haiti and Venezuela – continue to arrive in the country.
Kast’s rise in the polls coincided with the Iquique marches, and he was quick to capitalise on the underlying sentiments with a Trump-like series of provocations.
In a visit to Colchane, a tiny town on the Bolivian border which has become a popular crossing point for migrants, Kast highlighted violence perpetrated by migrants.
He has also proposed creating a body within the investigative police force in the image of the US’s much-criticised Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) to “actively seek out illegal migrants”.
“Fundamentally, Kast defends free markets and traditional values, and favours the image of a monocultural Chile of European descent,” says Gilberto Aranda, an academic at the University of Chile who studies rightwing movements.
“His advance in the polls is a reaction to the simplistic narrative that everything that has happened over the last 30 years has been negative.”
Although he is likened to Jair Bolsonaro, Kast’s similarly vitriolic message is delivered with a more understated tone than that of the Brazilian president.
His programme focuses on conservative family values, moves against corruption and the strengthening of public security. He makes a point of criticising political correctness, inclusive language, identity politics and the perceived “abandonment” of Chilean traditions.
Analysts say that Kast draws support from a continuum of voters reaching to the peripheries of Chile’s far right.
Before the October 2020 referendum on rewriting the constitution, small marches in Santiago’s wealthiest neighbourhoods were adorned with US Confederate flags and “Make Chile Great Again” paraphernalia – as well as a handful of baton-wielding demonstrators clad in military helmets.
The government has been reluctant to condemn other worrying developments. In November last year, the undersecretary in the interior ministry described a cache of weaponry – including an Uzi submachine gun, body armour and Crusader-style shields – amassed by a far-right group as “unimportant utensils”.
Kast, meanwhile, has been positioning himself carefully as a radical alternative to Chile’s traditionally powerful rightwing parties.
In the lead-up to the 2017 election, in which he won nearly 8% of the vote as an independent candidate, he claimed that if Pinochet were alive, the former dictator would have voted for him.
The Pinochet dictatorship seized power in a bloody coup d’état in 1973 and left behind more than 40,000 recorded victims when it relinquished power in 1990 – as well as the neoliberal economic model protesters have rejected.
Some in Chile, including several prominent members of the government, continue to support the economic legacy of the regime.
“Although Kast doesn’t openly espouse the dictatorship any more like some of his supporters, his programme embodies the elements that some believe made it a success,” explains Aranda.
In April this year, a candidate for councillor representing Kast’s party in Santiago openly stated her support for Pinochet, using the former dictator’s image in a photoshopped montage alongside the former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Another of the party’s candidates in the coastal city of Viña del Mar used a similar tactic.
Neither was elected.
But a battle for Chile’s identity is afoot, and the debate over national symbols, the place of indigenous peoples and migrants in society, and the legacy of the Pinochet regime is reflected in the contrasting frontrunners.
“This is the most fluid election since the return to democracy,” said Cristóbal Bellolio, a political scientist at Adolfo Ibáñez University in Santiago.
“Chile’s identity is at stake amid one of the most turbulent periods in recent history – and we are set to find out just how much has changed.”