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'I want real change': Chile votes in polarized presidential election

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By Reuters
'I want real change': Chile votes in polarized presidential election
'I want real change': Chile votes in polarized presidential election   -   Copyright  Thomson Reuters 2021

By Anthony Esposito and Natalia A. Ramos Miranda

SANTIAGO – Chileans headed to the polls on Sunday to vote in the Andean nation’s most divisive presidential election in decades, with two candidates offering starkly different visions for the future from pensions and privatization to human rights.

Voters were choosing between Gabriel Boric , a 35-year-old former student protest leader allied to the Communist Party, and ultra-conservative Jose Antonio Kast , 55, a law-and-order candidate and defender of former dictator Augusto Pinochet.

“I want real change,” said Lucrecia Cornejo, 72, a seamstress while waiting in line to vote for Boric, the candidate for a broad leftist front. She cited inequalities in education, pensions and health that Boric has pledged to fix.

“I want equality, for us not to be as they call us the ‘broken ones’, more fairness in education, health and salaries.”

Kast, who has been likened to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and who has become an icon for Chile’s “unapologetic right”, said in an open letter on Saturday that “two models for the nation are going face-to-face”. He offered “change with order and stability”.

Both candidates come from outside the centrist political mainstream that has largely ruled since Chile returned to democracy in 1990 following the years of Pinochet’s military dictatorship.

The final opinion polls ahead of the run-off election showed Boric widening his lead against Kast, though most polls show a close race. Polling stations close at 6 p.m. (2100 GMT) and initial results are expected soon after.

Both candidates got under 30% of the vote in a fragmented first round vote in November and have been battling hard since then to win over sometimes skeptical moderate voters in the Chile, which is the world’s largest copper producer and has a population of some 19 million.

“It is not that I am 100% with Boric, but now it is time to decide between two opposing options and Boric is my choice,” said Javier Morales, 29, a construction worker.

Florencia Vergara, 25, a dentistry student, was supporting Kast as the “lesser evil” for the economy. “I like his proposals on economic issues, although I don’t agree with all his political ideals,” she said. “But Chile needs a bit of order.”

GHOST OF PINOCHET

Boric supporters say he will overhaul the country’s market-oriented economic model that dates back to Pinochet. It has been credited for driving economic growth, but attacked for creating sharp divides between rich and poor.

Kast, meanwhile, has defended Pinochet’s legacy and aimed barbs at Boric for his alliance with the Communist Party in his leftist coalition, which has resonated with supporters . Some Kast voters shouted Chile would “never be Marxist” on Sunday.

“I support José Antonio Kast because he is a just man,” Marisol Araneda, 49, a merchant selling fruits and vegetables, said on Sunday as she headed to vote, adding she feared Boric would take the country in the direction of socialist Venezuela.

Boric, who rose to prominence leading a student protest in 2011 to demand better and more affordable education, wrote in an open letter that his government would make the changes Chileans had demanded in widespread social uprisings in 2019.

“(That means) having a real social security system that doesn’t leave people behind, ending the hateful gap between healthcare for the rich and healthcare for the poor, advancing without hesitation in freedoms and rights for women,” he said.

The 2019 protests, which ran for months and at times turned violent, sparked a formal process to redraft Chile’s decades-old constitution, a text which will face a referendum vote next year.

Businessman Jorge Valdivia, 54, a Boric supporter, said the vote was a chance for the country to close a chapter on the past.

“We can close the dark, damaging and abusive model that benefited a small minority,” he said.