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Chileans choose next president in divisive election

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Today the people of Chile voted for their next president. Voters had a choice between two candidates at opposite ends of the political spectrum. And this presidential election is being seen as the most divisive there in decades. It comes after several years of profound political turbulence in Chile.

We're joined by NPR's South American correspondent Philip Reeves, who is tracking today's event. Hi, Phil.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hi.

PFEIFFER: Tell us about the candidates.

REEVES: Well, this is a runoff between Jose Antonio Kast, an ultra-conservative, and Gabriel Boric, who's from the left. Kast started out the race as an outsider. But last month, he narrowly won the first round. He's 55, a lawyer, a veteran congressman. He's also a devout Catholic, a father of nine, and he's particularly hard-line on law and order. He says he wants a ditch dug along Chile's northern border to stop immigrants entering. And he's also defended some aspects of the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, which ended just over 30 years ago. One of his brothers, in fact, served as a minister in that Pinochet government.

PFEIFFER: And I gather his opponent is on the far opposite side politically.

REEVES: Yeah. He's Gabriele Boric. He made his name 10 years ago, leading student protests, demanding better and cheaper education. He was elected to congress after that. In this race, he's heading a leftist coalition that includes Chile's communist party. But he positions himself as a moderate and also as the champion of Chile's mass protest movement. That began in late 2019, when vast numbers of Chileans from a broad spectrum of society took to the streets to demand a more equal society, a better deal from government. And he's been promising to resolve a lot of the issues that those protests highlighted, for example, by overhauling Chile's pension and health systems, advancing indigenous rights and introducing tougher environmental laws. But one key factor here, Boric is only 35. So if he's elected, he would be Chile's youngest-ever leader.

PFEIFFER: Phil, you know well that Chile used to be seen as one of Latin America's most stable and prosperous countries. How did it reach this point?

REEVES: Yeah. I mean, the last few years in Chile have been extraordinary. First, we had those mass protests. And these led to a referendum in which Chileans decided to scrap their constitution, which came from the Pinochet years, and then later elected an assembly that is writing a new one. And on top of that, there was a recent attempt to impeach the outgoing President Sebastian Pinera. And, of course, they had the pandemic. So there's been a lot of upheaval. And I think that's important in this election because many Chileans are frightened of these upheavals. They're unsettled. And it's created insecurity. And Kast, in particular, has done much to exploit that in this election.

PFEIFFER: How did the voting go today? And is there any sign of who might win?

REEVES: It's been quite a tense day. There were lines at voting stations in Santiago, the capital, but longer lines at bus stops because of a shortage of public transport. I'm seeing a lot of angry complaints about this. The city's a stronghold of Gabriel Boric, the leftist. And some of his supporters are saying that this was an attempt to stop them voting. The government is strongly denying this. But it's made the situation even more tense than it would otherwise have been. As for which of these men wins, it's too close to call at this point.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's South America correspondent Philip Reeves. Phil, thank you.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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