Chile chooses president from polar opposites
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Chile chooses president from polar opposites

Gabriel Boric (L) and Jose Antonio Kast face off in Chile's runoff election
Gabriel Boric (L) and Jose Antonio Kast face off in Chile's runoff election

SANTIAGO - A Chile in the throes of profound change will choose a president Sunday from polar opposite candidates vying for votes among an apathetic and alienated electorate.

In the midst of rewriting its dictatorship-era constitution in answer to a social uprising against economic hardship and one of the world's highest rates of economic inequality, the country faces a stark leadership choice.

The candidates could not have been more different: far-right lawyer Jose Antonio Kast, an apologist for ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet and the neoliberal economic model he left behind; and leftist lawmaker Gabriel Boric with his plans for a welfare state.

"Certainly, a lot of people are uncomfortable with the choices they have. And that's because the moderate candidates didn't make it to the runoff. The two extreme candidates made it to the runoff," analyst Patricio Navia of the New York University told AFP.

Kast, 55, and Boric, 35, are polling neck and neck.

And with half the electorate undecided, a recent history of low voter turnout, and a high percentage of Chileans uncomfortable with either candidate, the ballot could be marked by high abstention and a strong protest vote.

"Most Chileans that vote... are going to (vote) because of fear," Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington DC, told AFP.

They will vote either "because they don't want a more rightwing Chile (under Kast) or because they are scared that Boric is going to be controlled by the Communist Party and it’s going to become another Venezuela."

- 'Dangerous' -

Father-of-nine Kast is the candidate of the far-right Republican Party he founded, has expressed admiration for Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, opposes gay marriage and abortion, and wants to cut taxes and clamp down on crime.

Millennial Boric, a former student activist, is socially liberal and represents the leftist Approve Dignity alliance which wants to increase taxes and social spending.

His alliance includes the Communist Party -- a fact that worries many Chileans with a deep-seated fear of socialist policies they blame for the demise of Venezuela, many of whose nationals it hosts as migrants.

"For me, it is (a vote) against communism," Kast voter Ricardo Sepulveda, a 75-year-old retiree, told AFP in Santiago.

But for special needs teacher Camila Chamblas, 26, Kast's utterances -- against migrants and individual freedoms -- are "like a continuation" of Pinochet.

"It is dangerous," she said, adding young people -- among whom apathy is high -- should vote to prevent a repeat "of what happened to their parents" under the dictatorship, which locked up and killed political opponents.

Some 15 million of Chile's 19 million people are eligible to cast a ballot Sunday, four weeks after the first round in which Kast garnered nearly 28 percent of the vote and Boric almost 26 percent.

Only 47 percent of voters turned out for the first round, and of those who did, nearly half cast their ballots for candidates other than Boric or Kast, fragmenting the center.

- Changing tack -

The last men standing are both from minority parties not in government and never part of the coalitions that have governed Chile since the exit of Pinochet 31 years ago.

Since the first round, both have moderated their policy positions as they seek to woo centrist voters.

The election comes two years after festering discontent with deep social inequality, low salaries and pensions, and poor public health care and education brought thousands out on the streets to demand change.

The movement cost dozens of lives, but caused president Sebastian Pinera's government to agree to a referendum, in which Chileans voted overwhelmingly for the Pinochet-era constitution to be rewritten.

The task to redraft Chile's founding law by next year was given in another election to a majority of independent, left-leaning candidates.

The new constitution could change the system of governance, presidential terms and functions, and even result in fresh elections being called.

Whoever wins, governing will require much negotiation and compromise, with Congress split nearly equally between the left and right and likely acting as a brake on any dramatic changes, analysts say.

The victor will also be hampered by a period of uncertainty while the new constitution is being drafted.

"It is like when you get married but you cannot move in with your spouse because the old spouse hasn't left yet," said Navia.

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