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Chileans cast votes in polarizing presidential election, runoff likely

Chilean voters head to the polls Saturday to vote for Chile's next president.

In Chile — as in France, Spain, and many other countries — the traditional center-left and center-right parties have lost much of their popularity, paving the way for new parties and new ideas. Seven candidates are seeking the South American nation's presidency, but AP reports that most of the attention is on the two front-runners.

Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old former student activist, leads a left-wing coalition that includes Chile's Communist Party. His platform seeks to tackle income inequality and climate change. Boric is one of a cohort of young, progressive lawmakers who won election to Congress following 2014 protests against a proposed reallocation of public education funds.   

Running against him is José Antonio Kast, a devout Catholic and staunch social conservative, who emphasizes the need for law and order, increased immigration controls, and lower corporate taxes. Kast served in Chile's Congress from 2002 to 2014 before launching an unsuccessful independent bid for the presidency in 2017.

Kast has also spoken favorably of the dictatorial regime of General Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990. Some voters and commentators view Kast as symptomatic of a broader trend in the international right. "I see this as part of the global penetration of a populist speech similar to Jair Bolsonaro's in Brazil and Donald Trump's in the USA," Cristóbal Bellolio, a professor of political philosophy at the Universidad Adolfo Ibañez in Santiago, told CNN.

Chile, long considered an economic "miracle," has suffered massive protests against the constitution and free-market system bequeathed to it by the Pinochet regime. The current president, center-right billionaire Sebastian Pinera, has made concessions on both fronts. After a 2020 plebiscite passed with 78 percent of the vote, an elected constitutional convention began work on new constitution. The document will likely be ready for consideration sometime next year.  

Neither Boric nor Kast is projected to win more than 50 percent of the vote. If neither receives the absolute majority necessary for outright victory, the two will face each other in a runoff election next month.