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In Chile’s Presidential Race, Kast and Boric Are Not Equally Dangerous Extremes

Far-right candidate José Antonio Kast threatens to politicize the country’s constitutional rewrite.

By , a doctoral candidate in politics at Princeton University, and , a lecturer in political science at Skidmore College and a doctoral candidate in politics at The New School.
Presidential candidates Gabriel Boric of the Social Convergence party and José Antonio Kast of the Republican Party pose before a presidential debate in Santiago, Chile, on Dec. 13.
Presidential candidates Gabriel Boric of the Social Convergence party and José Antonio Kast of the Republican Party pose before a presidential debate in Santiago, Chile, on Dec. 13.
Presidential candidates Gabriel Boric of the Social Convergence party and José Antonio Kast of the Republican Party pose before a presidential debate in Santiago, Chile, on Dec. 13. Elvis Gonzalez/Pool/Getty Images

Read international coverage of Chile’s Dec. 19 presidential runoff election, and you might think voters are at a crossroads. In the contest between far-right José Antonio Kast and leftist Gabriel Boric, the story goes, Chileans must choose “one of two extremes,” each promising to send the country hurtling toward greater instability.

Both candidates undoubtedly occupy the political fringes, and in a country that has long hewed toward the political center, that comes as a shock to the system. But only one candidate, Kast, has set himself on a collision course with Chile’s Constitutional Convention, the assembly currently writing a draft of the country’s new constitution. That spells trouble.

Kast has opposed a new constitution from day one and promises to use the presidency’s power to lead opposition against its ratification if he finds the final draft objectionable. Meanwhile, the assembly’s leadership, dominated by leftist parties and independents, has already dubiously claimed the power to cut a president’s term short. There’s no doubt whom they have in mind.

Read international coverage of Chile’s Dec. 19 presidential runoff election, and you might think voters are at a crossroads. In the contest between far-right José Antonio Kast and leftist Gabriel Boric, the story goes, Chileans must choose “one of two extremes,” each promising to send the country hurtling toward greater instability.

Both candidates undoubtedly occupy the political fringes, and in a country that has long hewed toward the political center, that comes as a shock to the system. But only one candidate, Kast, has set himself on a collision course with Chile’s Constitutional Convention, the assembly currently writing a draft of the country’s new constitution. That spells trouble.

Kast has opposed a new constitution from day one and promises to use the presidency’s power to lead opposition against its ratification if he finds the final draft objectionable. Meanwhile, the assembly’s leadership, dominated by leftist parties and independents, has already dubiously claimed the power to cut a president’s term short. There’s no doubt whom they have in mind.

Ultimately, the Chilean people will be the ones to decide whether the new charter becomes law through a plebiscite held next year. In the meantime, however, a full-blown conflict between Kast and the assembly could deepen Chile’s political polarization. And if there’s one thing the country cannot afford, it’s an all-out battle between two elected institutions, each determined to overpower the other.


Until 2019, the idea that Chilean elections could trigger an institutional crisis would have seemed far-fetched at best. The same center-left and center-right governing coalitions have alternated holding power since 1990, when Chile returned to democracy after 17 years of military dictatorship under former Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet. Political debates focused chiefly on policy, and even then, the two main coalitions largely converged. As a result, Chile became one of Latin America’s most stable democracies, buffeted by steady economic growth and, for a time, remarkable poverty reduction.

If that story sounds too good to be true, it was. Underneath the surface of political compromise and macroeconomic stability, harsh inequality was brewing and a fraying social safety net could hardly keep up. A privatized pension system left many older adults destitute. Underinvestment in public education, specifically in poorer neighborhoods, drove students to the streets in protest, including a young Boric. Although by 2018 Chile’s GDP per capita was the highest in South America, to say growth was unevenly distributed would be an understatement: Roughly half the population lived on $550 or less a month. Average life expectancies among women born in Santiago’s poorest and wealthiest neighborhoods differed by almost two decades.

In late 2019, a nominal hike in public transit fares boiled over into a monthslong cycle of mostly peaceful mass protests marked by outbursts of violence and property destruction. Center-right Chilean President Sebastián Piñera’s government responded with a crackdown that resulted in hundreds of arrests, at least 31 deaths, and 2,300 people injured.

When protests paralyzed the country, Chile’s rebuked political establishment responded by proposing a plebiscite that would trigger a process to replace Pinochet’s 1980 constitution, which many blame for entrenching an economic model that delivered growth at the cost of high inequality. In October 2020, 78 percent of voters backed the option of writing a new constitution, and 79 percent favored choosing all newly elected delegates to draft the charter instead of a mix of sitting lawmakers and new faces.

Then, in May, voters gave leftists—including Boric’s Broad Front coalition and the Communist Party—as well as independents more than two-thirds of the assembly’s seats. Center-right politicians and those further to the right failed to win even one-third of the seats—and thus lost the ability to block initiatives supported by an assembly majority.


Cue the 2021 general elections. A first-round vote on Nov. 21 showed Chileans hadn’t finished punishing the center-left and center-right establishment. Voters turned their backs on traditional coalitions and gave far-right Kast first place (27.9 percent) and leftist Boric second place (25.8 percent), paving the way for Sunday’s runoff. Franco Parisi, a populist, came third with 12.8 percent. Sebastián Sichel and Yasna Provoste, representing the traditional center-right and center-left coalitions, respectively, landed in fourth and fifth place.

Kast and Boric, for all their ideological differences, share more than a few similarities. Both entered politics at a young age and cut their teeth on university politics—Kast as a supporter of Pinochet’s ultimately failed bid to stay in power through a 1988 national plebiscite and Boric as a leader in the 2011 protest movement to demand more public education funding.

Both also made moves into electoral politics but chafed against the old guard of the center-right and center-left, respectively. Kast entered Congress in 2002 with the right-wing Independent Democratic Union (UDI) but soured with the party’s senior leadership, who protected their vested interests at all costs. When a series of influence-peddling and corruption scandals hit the UDI starting in 2015, Kast launched his own far-right Republican Party.

Boric won a seat in Congress in 2013 on a left-wing platform outside Chile’s traditional center-left bloc. The center-left coalition made inroads by partly dismantling Pinochet’s legacy through constitutional reforms and poverty reduction. But the left, Boric included, criticized the coalition for applying Band-Aid solutions to what they viewed as an irreparably broken model. The center-left old guard also refused to step down from power, blocking younger voices from having a say. Inspired by Spain’s leftist Podemos party, Boric and his allies created the Broad Front coalition in 2017 to push for change in a leftist direction.

Boric’s economic program is not radical.

But that’s where the two candidates’ similarities stop. When it comes to policy, they couldn’t be further apart. Inspired by right-wing populists like former U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Kast has targeted his appeals to Chile’s most conservative voters, including the country’s growing evangelical bloc. He is openly critical of the influx of migrants from Venezuela and Haiti and has pledged to set up a police unit similar to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He also built a reputation for hard-line social conservativism, fervently opposing abortion and LGBTQ+ rights as well as calling for law and order. Like right-wing populists elsewhere, he has an isolationist streak and has floated the idea of withdrawing Chile from the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Most controversial, however, has been his apologist stance toward—and even praise for—the Pinochet years as well as recent revelations that his father, a German immigrant who came to Chile after World War II, was a card-carrying Nazi—a claim Kast persistently denies.

Boric, on the other hand, advocates overhauling the private pension system, raising taxes on the wealthy, and reforming Chile’s free-market economy to give the state a more significant regulatory role. He also emphasizes feminism, a green energy transition, and human rights protections for Indigenous and LGBTQ+ communities. Still, his alliance with the hard-left Communist Party, which punches above its weight within his coalition, stokes fear among many Chileans who worry the party’s hard-liners will have Boric’s ear.

But Boric’s economic program is not radical. He is committed to the Central Bank of Chile’s independence and stabilizing Chile’s debt as well as has brought on a team of broadly centrist economic advisors.

Now, both candidates have shifted their attention to Chile’s elusive centrist voters, and although early polling gave Boric a comfortable lead, the latest polls suggest the race is a toss-up. Ahead of the runoff, both candidates have moderated their platforms—and in Kast’s case, preyed on conservative and centrist voters’ fears of a Venezuela-style economic and political meltdown should Boric win.


Whichever candidate wins the Chilean presidency will face the challenge of governing as the Constitutional Convention puts a draft of the new constitution to a national plebiscite midway through 2022.

Boric and Kast promise radically different approaches to this task: Boric was one of the leading voices behind the call for a plebiscite to convene the constitutional assembly. He sees the new charter as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to end Pinochet’s entrenched legacy and enshrine socioeconomic rights into law. He also promises to “defend the constitutional process.”

Boric’s ties to the Constitutional Convention’s dominant left-leaning factions raise valid concerns about him having undue influence over the rewrite process, especially because the assembly’s vice president told Boric he promises to be “at your service.” But Boric has also insisted, repeatedly, that he will “fully respect” the assembly’s autonomy and maintain its funding as it finishes its task

Kast has also promised to respect the assembly, but he has persistently undercut his own credibility in the same breath. Kast vocally campaigned against drafting a new charter—as was his right. But since Chileans decided to opt for the constitutional assembly, Kast has consistently leaned toward interference in what should be a free and independent process. Most recently, he vowed to personally lead the campaign to reject the new constitution in the plebiscite next year if the assembly members “disrespect the right to free speech, freedom of worship, freedom in the classroom, or private property.”

Kast has consistently leaned toward interference in what should be a free and independent process.

But that vote must be held without presidential interference. Although neither Boric nor Kast has provided a surefire guarantee he will stay out of the constitutional rewrite, Kast’s threats to interfere are explicit and should be setting off alarm bells among democrats in Chile and abroad. If the constitutional process was to come under attack, the left-leaning assembly would also likely not hold back by trying—even on a questionable legal basis—to shorten the next presidential term. Under the current constitution, presidential terms in Chile are four years long

Writing a new constitution and putting it up to a vote is never an easy task—least of all in South America, where populist strongmen, usually leftists, have commandeered the process from the top down in countries like Venezuela and Ecuador. But Chile’s constitutional assembly is of an entirely different nature. It started from the grassroots, with broad public support. The process emerged not at the behest of a politician or single party but from a cross-generational, ideologically diverse coalition.

Boric, who is pursuing the presidency months into the rewrite process, is more a follower of this unruly coalition than its leader. He is no Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s former president, and Chile is not Venezuela. If there is any public figure at risk of borrowing a page from the strongman playbook and interfering with Chile’s constitutional assembly, it is not Boric, but Kast—whose goal is not to shape Chile’s new order but to ensure the old one remains in place

Chile’s new constitution might fail to muster ratification. If that’s the result of a free democratic process, that’s fine. But if a substantial portion of Chileans believe the referendum’s result is steered by the next president, it could rob the country’s institutions of their legitimacy for generations to come.

Indeed, Chile is at a crossroads—but not between two equally destabilizing choices.

Will Freeman is a doctoral candidate in politics at Princeton University and 2022 Fulbright Hays grantee to Colombia, Peru, and Guatemala. Twitter: @WillGFreeman

Lucas Perelló is a lecturer in political science at Skidmore College and a doctoral candidate in politics at The New School. Twitter: @lucas_perello

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