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Leftist lawmaker Boric wins polarized election in Chile, to become nation’s youngest president

Chilean presidential candidate Gabriel Boric is seen before a televised debate at TVN in Santiago, on November 15, 2021.
Chilean presidential candidate Gabriel Boric, from the Apruebo Dignidad party, is seen before a televised debate at TVN in Santiago, on November 15, 2021.
(Esteban Felix / Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Leftist Congressman Gabriel Boric, 35, will become the youngest president in Chile’s history after winning a comfortable victory in the South American nation’s most polarized election since its return to democracy more than 30 years ago.

With virtually all of the vote counted, the millennial progressive who burst into prominence a decade ago as a shaggy-haired student protest leader had garnered almost 56% of the ballots.

That compared with about 44% for his opponent, José Antonio Kast, 55, a far-right career politician and admirer of Chile’s former military dictatorship.

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In a Twitter message, Kast said he had spoken with Boric and conceded.

“From today [Boric] is president-elect of Chile and deserves all our respect and constructive collaboration,” Kast said, about an hour after polls closed. “Chile always comes first.”

Boric is to take office March 11 for a single four-year term. He will be 36 on inauguration day.

“I’m going to be the president of all Chileans, those who voted for me, those who didn’t, those who did not vote,” Boric said Sunday in a video call with outgoing President Sebastián Piñera.

Boric will face a divided Congress that will force him to negotiate with the right-wing opposition as he begins to attempt to implement a sweeping agenda.

Still, the results represented the latest triumph for the left in Latin America, where the COVID-19 pandemic has battered economies and left many voters soured on traditional political parties. Leftist leaders have been elected since 2020 in two of Chile’s neighbors, Bolivia and Peru, and a center-left president leads adjacent Argentina.

The runoff vote in Chile featured a study in contrasts — the leftist former student activist allied with the Communist Party and the ultraconservative free marketeer who reminds many of former President Trump and his South American devotee, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

In recent weeks the race became a contest to attract middle-of-the-road voters, with both candidates moderating some of their more extreme positions. The results showed that Boric had more success in wooing voters beyond his leftist base.

In first-round voting last month, Kast narrowly finished first and Boric second in fragmented balloting that saw no one garner a majority, leading to Sunday’s runoff.

Both candidates represent a stunning rebuke of the centrist left and right parties that have alternated governing Chile since 1990, after the 17-year military rule of the late Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Many voters — both left- and right-leaning citizens — seemed motivated to cast ballots in an effort to avoid a candidate they considered an extremist from taking power.

“I voted for Boric only so that right-wing fascism doesn’t win,” Felipe Malinarich, 23, who studied physical training but works fixing washing machines, said after voting in the working-class neighborhood of San Bernardo, south of Santiago. “I decided to give the lesser evil a chance.”

Among those voting for Kast was Lucía Barrera, a 69-year-old stay-at-home mother.

“This is a critical election for Chile because, in my humble opinion, our freedom is at stake,” Barrera said after casting her ballot in the affluent area of Las Condes, east of Santiago. “The leftist candidate is allied with the Communist Party, which we all know is not democratic.”

Running under the banner of the leftist I Approve Dignity coalition, Boric has repeatedly denounced “neoliberalism,” the conservative free-market strategy pioneered by the so-called Chicago Boys — influential Chilean economists trained at the University of Chicago.

“If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave!” declared Boric in July.

Since emerging from Pinochet’s dictatorship, Chile — the world’s leading copper producer and a dependable U.S. ally — has been widely viewed as a wealthy bastion of stability and economic progress in a volatile region. However, mass street protests in 2019 exposed deep divisions in the nation of 19 million where, amid considerable wealth, half of workers earn about $500 a month. Opposition to a transit fare hike quickly expanded into a nationwide mobilization against inequality.

Kast, a former congressman who admires Pinochet’s rule, ran on a socially conservative, anti-immigrant and tax-cutting agenda reminiscent of Trump. His law-and-order pronouncements appealed to many still irate about the 2019 unrest, which left at least 31 people dead, paralyzed the country for months and resulted in torched shopping malls, supermarkets and subway stations.

Boric was one of the architects of the deal that helped end the 2019 protest and led to a referendum to rewrite the constitution imposed in 1980 by Pinochet.

In his campaign, Boric vowed a “gradual” implementation of his controversial plans to nationalize the pension and health systems, raise the minimum wage to $600 a month (from $400) and reduce the workweek from 45 to 40 hours. He has also backed off from a proposal to dissolve the national police force, known as the carabineros, instead calling for reforms.

Special correspondent Poblete reported from Santiago and Times staff writer McDonnell from Mexico City.


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