SANTIAGO: Chilean hard-right former congressman Jose Antonio Kast was on track to win the country's presidential election late on Sunday (Nov 21), though well short of a majority meaning he would likely face a polarised run-off with leftist lawmaker Gabriel Boric.
With just under 50 per cent of the vote counted Kast had received 28.64 per cent of ballots versus 24.44 per cent for Boric, with a sizeable gap between them and the rest of the field. If no candidate receives more than 50 per cent of the vote there will be a second round on Dec 19.
The election is the copper-rich Andean country's most divisive since its 1990 return to democracy, which has split voters between left-wing protest against the traditional order and those seeking a harder line against crime and immigration.
Kast, a 55-year-old Catholic and 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. Broadly speaking, he represents a significant rupture from the conservative to centrist policies that have dominated Chilean politics for decades.
"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 dramatic, 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 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 would 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."
In a surprise, liberal economist Franco Parisi, who is living abroad and did not set foot in Chile during the campaign, was in third place with 13.6 per cent 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.
Centre-left Yasna Provoste and center-right Sebastian Sichel were in fourth and fifth with 12.36 per cent and 11.96 per cent respectively.
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 base sufficiently to win in an eventual second round.
Also up for grabs 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.