Chile faces a conundrum this month. It has only been a matter of weeks since marriage between same-sex couples was approved in this historically Catholic country but citizens might also choose to elect as president an ultra-conservative father of nine who dismisses gay rights and opposes abortion. It’s a sign of broader ongoing tensions: while this Latin American nation has made significant strides socially and culturally in recent years, those changes are framed inside a political structure and economy that favours an old conservative elite. Many believe that the system is broken and has failed to keep up.
On Sunday, Chileans head to the polls in a decisive presidential runoff. On the right is former congressman José Antonio Kast. He has campaigned on a platform of cracking down on crime and illegal immigration, while maintaining traditional values. On the left is former student activist Gabriel Boric (pictured, on left, with Kast), who first shot to fame 10 years ago during protests against inequality in education. If elected, Boric would become the youngest Chilean president in more than 200 years and has vowed to bury the country’s “neoliberal” past of market-oriented policies that have failed to narrow social divisions. While Kast and Boric present entirely different visions for the country, they represent a renewal of Chile’s political class: both are running as independents and neither has made it this far in a race before.
On the streets of Santiago this week, there is a sense that the progress Boric represents might well prevail. Lawmakers are talking to indigenous leaders outside congress in lively debates, as part of operations by the 155-member body that is charged with writing a new constitution to replace the one imposed under General Augusto Pinochet. Students have been gathering outside bars dressed in rainbow colours to celebrate the gay marriage bill. A few blocks up, groups of demonstrators stand outside parliament to demand justice for political prisoners. “Despite everything, we’re still a long way from Pinochet,” one 65-year-old protester tells me.
Lucinda Elliott is Monocle’s Latin America Affairs correspondent.