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Politics is a tough business in Latin America. The battle in Chile over who will be the next president promises to be a particularly fierce competition. The Chileans voted yesterday in the first round of elections. Two men at opposite ends of the political scale face a run-off next month. NPR’s Philip Reeves reports from the capital, Santiago.


PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: A few months ago, few Chileans expected scenes like this. Yesterday’s election results have just arrived. Supporters of José Antonio Kast arrive at his campaign headquarters in Santiago for a night of celebration. When he entered the race, Kast was a marginal candidate, a far-right populist. Yesterday he was the first to arrive.


JOSE ANTONIO KAST: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Kast takes the stage for his victory speech. He launches an attack against his second-round opponent, Gabriel Boric, a former student leader. Boric is at the head of a broad left coalition, including the Communist Party.


KAST: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Kast accuses Boric and his communist allies of trying to destabilize Chile. Kast’s surprising success marks a big change in the political landscape. Two years ago, millions of Chileans took to the streets, demanding an end to the conservative economic model imposed by the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. This year, the country elected a left-wing assembly to rewrite the constitution. Analysts say many Chileans have turned to Kast because they are shaken by these changes, which they attribute to leftists.

ALEJANDRO LOPEZ: They want to make a new Chile from ashes. They want to burn down the existing Chile and make a new one that I don’t like – deconstruct gender, deconstruct family, deconstruct values ​​and traditions.

REEVES: Alejandro Lopez is in the crowd, celebrating Kast’s success. He is 21 years old. Lopez says he’s delighted that the Chilean far right is now dominant.

LOPEZ: We wanted a law that defends its core values, even defending the best of Pinochet. It’s, like, a taboo now.

REEVES: Thousands of Chileans were murdered by the Pinochet regime which ended in 1990. Kast praised Pinochet’s economic achievements. Also in the crowd is Lucas Ressler, an engineering student. Ressler says he actually wanted to vote for a center-right candidate but thought he didn’t stand a chance. He chose Kast because …

LUCAS RESSLER: It gives me peace and security about street safety, economic security, stability – all that stuff.

JENNY PRIBBLE: I think Kast’s performance can be explained in part by a very far-right dimension of public order-conscious support. But I also think that it is explained by the collapse of the traditional parties.

REEVES: Professor Jenny Pribble of the University of Richmond is an expert on Chilean politics. Kast got 28% of the vote yesterday and Boric 26. That’s well below the 50% and more needed for victory. The two are fighting to expand their base ahead of the Dec. 19 second round, Pribble says.

PRIBBLE: I think Kast has a slightly easier path to victory than Boric. I think he will have to try to convince these voters that he respects the rules of democracy, that he is not going to undermine the rules of democracy.

REEVES: The stakes are high. Chile is deeply polarized. Many Chileans don’t appreciate being asked to make a choice between the hard right and the left.

LIGIA HERRERA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: I’m worried, Ligia Herrera said as she lined up to vote in Santiago yesterday. She is a nurse. Herrera doesn’t like the left but fears that a Kast presidency will erode women’s rights and cut taxes for the rich. Chile doesn’t need that right now, she said. He needs social justice.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Santiago.

(EXCERPT FROM THE SONG BY THE IMPRESSIVE, “UPWARD”) Transcription provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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