Weekly Report - 18 November 2021 (WR-21-46)

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CHILE: Boric and Kast neck-and-neck ahead of first round

Chileans go to the polls on 21 November to elect their next president and congressional representatives. Coming two years after mass protests over socio-economic grievances shook the country, eventually leading to the current re-drafting of the constitution by a popularly elected constituent assembly, this election has been described as the country’s most critical since the return to democracy. Polls suggest that the far-right candidate, José Antonio Kast from the Partido Republicano (PLR), and left-winger Gabriel Boric, running for the Apruebo Dignidad coalition, will win the first round and face each other in a run-off vote on 19 December. But electoral rules in Chile impose an opinion poll ‘blackout’ in the two weeks prior to the vote, and developments over the last fortnight, as well as voter behaviour on the day, could unexpectedly shift the outcome.

The last authorised opinion surveys released at the beginning of the month present different findings: Boric leads with over 30% of voting intentions in some, such as the polls by Tú Influyes and Criteria, while Kast – who has seen his support surge over the last couple of months [WR-21-43] – sits several points ahead of Boric in others, such as Cadem’s. However, all polls confirm that candidates from the traditional political forces that have dominated Chilean politics over the past three decades have fallen out of favour.

Yasna Provoste, a Christian Democrat running for Nuevo Pacto Social, a coalition of traditional centre-left parties broadly considered to have succeeded the Concertación coalition, languishes in third place with just over 10% of voting intentions. Sebastián Sichel from Chile Podemos Más, the right-wing ruling coalition previously known as Chile Vamos, has single-digit support and jostles for fourth and fifth place with Franco Parisi, a wildcard candidate who is running his campaign remotely as he is not even in the country.

  • Parisi

A US-based economist who has been described as both controversial and disruptive, Franco Parisi, is making his second bid for the presidency. He came fourth in the 2013 election with just over 10% of the valid vote. Running for the militant Partido de la Gente (PDG) with a populist slogan – “Parisi. The people in power” – Parisi has conducted his entire campaign online from Alabama. He will not be in Chile for the election in which he is competing after he tested positive for Covid-19 on the day he was due to travel. Some polls put Parisi ahead of Sichel, on 8%-10%.  

In the days since the poll blackout began, both Boric’s and Kast’s campaigns have hit potential snags. Boric tested positive for the coronavirus (Covid-19) at the beginning of November, forcing him to suspend in-person campaigning while he self-isolated (the other candidates, with whom he had been in close contact, also withdrew from in-person campaigning for a few days).

The re-emergence of sexual harassment allegations, dating back to Boric’s time as a student leader, has cast a shadow over the left-winger’s campaign (he denies any impropriety and says he will collaborate with any potential investigation). He has also had to distance himself from a position adopted by a sector of the Partido Comunista (PC), the more radical partner in the Apruebo Dignidad coalition, after it expressed support for the contentious re-election of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua (Boric himself described the widely-slammed elections [WR-21-45] as a “farce”).

Kast, meanwhile, came under fire last week for defending the authoritarian and repressive regime of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) and suggesting that the elections held in 1989, during Pinochet’s dictatorship, were free. He became the main target of attacks during the final presidential debate, which took place six days before the election.

The final debate

Six of the seven presidential candidates (Parisi being absent) took part in the last presidential debate ahead of the first-round vote, which was organised by the national television association (Anatel) on 15 November. The debate was considered the last opportunity for Provoste and Sichel to try and attract undecided voters, while Kast and Boric were expected to go into it with the aim of not committing any errors which might put off voters and affect their lead.

It is hard to gauge how much of an impact the debate – which attracted some 3m viewers – will have had on voting intentions, but Kast is widely considered to have suffered from it. He came in for heavy criticism from his opponents, drawing fire for his aggressive stance against issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, as well as his Pinochet comments. In contrast with his usually smiling and relaxed appearance, Kast was tight-lipped and visibly uncomfortable, on the defensive about human rights and caught short over the contents of his own government plan.

With little to lose, both Provoste and Sichel performed relatively well, while Boric’s performance was considered unexceptional as he tried to play it safe – although he did appear stronger on the economy than previously. The two other candidates, who achieve about 6% of voting intentions between them – Marco Enríquez-Ominami on the centre-right and Eduardo Artés on the far-left – also joined the chorus of criticism directed at Kast and, to a lesser extent, Boric.


Although it appears difficult for Sichel or Provoste to catch up Boric’s and Kast’s 20-point or so lead in the polls, a level of unpredictability surrounds the outcome of this week’s presidential first round. The uncertainty lies around the behaviour on the day of the more than 20% of voters who declared themselves unsure or undecided two weeks ago, as well as the level of abstention.

Since voting stopped being compulsory in 2012, Chile has suffered from systematically low electoral participation. Turnout was just 46.7% in the first round of the 2017 presidential election (which Sebastián Piñera went on to win in the second round), while the 50.96% turnout achieved at the referendum on a new constitution last October was hailed by some as a success. Pollster Criteria presented two possible first-round results in its last poll, one based on calculations of ‘low turnout’ (41%), and the other on ‘high turnout’ (51%).

Political observers in Chile broadly expect turnout to be similar to that of other recent elections, although two factors could lead to higher voter numbers. The first is the level of polarisation in this election, with the two frontrunners hailing from political extremes and proposing fundamentally different agendas. The second is the possibly higher participation of older voters – amongst whom abstention was higher than among younger voters in the elections held over the past year – due to both the polarisation factor, and fewer worries over Covid-19.

Legislative elections

Chileans are also electing regional councillors, national deputies, and some senators on 21 November. According to the electoral authorities (Servel), there are 1,256 candidates registered to compete for the 155 seats in the chamber of deputies, and 173 candidates disputing the 27 seats that are up for election in the senate. While deputies serve four-year terms, senators are elected for eight years. The next senate will be made up of 50 representatives, up from 43 currently.  

Piñera survives impeachment

On 16 November, the Chilean senate threw out a motion to impeach President Sebastián Piñera after it failed to garner the necessary 29 votes to pass. The impeachment motion was presented by the left-wing opposition in October, which accused Piñera of lack of probity and compromising the honour of the nation (two constitutional violations) in relation to the sale of his family’s shareholding in the Minera Dominga mine carried out during his first term in 2010, unveiled in the ‘Pandora Papers’ leaked last month [WR-21-40].

The chamber of deputies voted in favour of impeaching Piñera on 9 November – the motion only required a simple majority in the lower house – but as expected, the opposition was unable to muster the required two-thirds majority needed for the motion to pass the senate. The move to impeach Piñera was understood to be an entirely political move by the opposition to taint the already unpopular government ahead of the elections.

Piñera’s government has rejected the impeachment motion as having no legal basis. In a statement after the senate’s decision, the executive said it could now get back to focusing on important issues such as pension reform, tackling crime, and economic recovery.

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