Chileans elect Gabriel Boric president, reject ultra-conservative candidate
Supporters of Chile's President-elect Gabriel Boric celebrate his victory in the presidential run-off election, in Santiago, Sunday, Dec. 19, 2021. Above the crowd wave several flags belonging to the Communist Party of Chile, which supported Boric's candidacy in the run-off. | Matias Delacroix / AP

Chileans on Dec. 19 were facing a defining moment as they voted for a president to replace right-wing billionaire Sebastián Piñera, whose second term is ending. Their choice of 35-year-old Gabriel Boric, social democratic candidate of the left-leaning Approve Dignity coalition, deflected the threat from devotees of Chile’s Pinochet dictatorship. They were backing billionaire José Antonio Kast, candidate of the Christian Social Front.

At stake were prospects for overcoming leftovers from the Pinochet dictatorship that ended in 1990. Policies in place under Piñera had prompted massive protests in October 2019 and for weeks afterwards. Demonstrators demanded rights for youth, labor, pensioners, and Indigenous people. They called for a new constitution to replace the one imposed by the old dictatorship and still in force today. Under fire, the Piñera government prepared for a Constituent Assembly, which voters authorized in May 2021.

Delegates to that Assembly are at work now presumably removing constitutional protection for Pinochet-era laws and regulations, most of which are neoliberal in nature. With Kast as president, approval of a new constitution and then implementation would likely have been problematic.

Kast had secured 27.9% of the votes in the first round of presidential elections on Nov. 21. Second-place Boric had gained 25.8%. In the just-completed second round, however, Boric won 55.7% of the vote to Kast’s 44.3% of the total. Crucially, 55% of eligible Chileans voted; only 47% had done so in the first round. On that occasion, seven political parties presented candidates.

Voter participation was the highest since the authorization of voluntary voting in 2012. Since then, low attendance at the polls has been routine. Massive distrust of political parties is said to contribute to potential voters staying away. Political participation has overwhelmingly taken the form of involvement with social movements.

Social movements represented the main force behind both the watershed demonstrations that began in 2019 and the student-led mobilizations of 2008 and 2011. It’s likely that on Dec. 19 politically unaffiliated activists voted in large enough numbers to give the presidency to Boric.

Chile’s President-elect Gabriel Boric. | Luis Hidalgo / AP

The new president, who grew up in extreme southern Chile, drew attention in 2011 as one of the student leaders responsible for nationwide protests. He has served in the Chamber of Deputies in Chile’s Congress since 2014, having been the first to legislate there without party affiliation.

Speaking after his victory, Boric promised to defend the Constituent Assembly, to protect Indigenous rights, support pension reform and public education, introduce universal healthcare, and work toward reducing wealth inequalities.

Primary elections in July 2021 established Boric as a front-runner presidential candidate. Running on behalf of a center-left coalition that included his new “Social Convergence Party,” he defeated Daniel Jadue, the Communist mayor of Recoleta and candidate of a leftist coalition led by the Communist Party. The two coalitions quickly merged to form the now victorious Approve Dignity formation.

Campaigning, candidate Kast based his appeal on anti-communism and condemnation of abortion. Family ties burnishing his ultra-right credentials came to the fore. His brother had served the Pinochet dictatorship as economist, labor minister, and Central Bank head; his immigrant father was a member of Germany’s Nazi Party.

The disaster in store for Chile, had Kast been elected, was clear in a pre-election survey of his proposals for governing. Promising to “restore order,” Kast wanted to “grant legal immunity to the armed forces and fund the legal defense of police officers accused of using excessive force; give the President sweeping powers to crack down on dissent; establish an International Anti-Radical Left Coalition; identify, arrest, and prosecute radicalized troublemakers…[and] exit the United Nations.”


W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.