In uncertain times, Chileans vote with a ballot and wallet

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SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) – Miguel Torres is the archetype of what might be called the Chilean dream.

As a college dropout, thanks to decades of economic stability and Asian Tiger-like growth, he nevertheless rose above his working-class roots to build a successful career as the owner of a small outdoor advertising company.

But in the run-up to the presidential election on Sunday, the 68-year-old tried the previously unthinkable: to sell the generous home that he had built over a lifetime. He doesn’t have any offers, but if he’s lucky enough to find a buyer, he plans to hide and downsize the proceeds overseas.

“I’m too old to leave the country,” he says, looking at the pool and the huge camellia trees that adorn his house in the clayey district of Los Condes in the capital, Santiago. “But I won’t leave the little money I have here.”

Torres isn’t the only Chilean who is nervous.

After a violent wave of social and political unrest in recent years, including the current constitutional amendment, Chileans go to the polls with a mixture of fear, optimism and, above all, uncertainty about the future.

The country has long stood in sharp contrast to its chaotic neighbors such as the chronically debt-defaulting Argentina in the west or northern Peru, which has had five presidents since 2018.

But frustration with the free market model and its inability to eradicate nagging inequality and provide affordable, high quality public services in the country of 19 million people is growing.

Polls consistently suggest that two top runners are neck and neck in the race for seven candidates, though neither came close to the 50% threshold required to avoid a December runoff.

One contender, Gabriel Boric, is a 35-year-old former protest leader who has forged an alliance with the Communist Party and promises to “bury” Chile’s past as a model of neoliberalism – a blow to the reforms introduced by Gen. in the 1980s, Augusto imposed Pinochet.

The other, José Antonio Kast, is a former fringe candidate from Chile’s extreme right with a long history of defending the dictator’s rule and attacking what he calls the “gay lobby”.

In the run-up to the vote, Chileans like Torres voted with their wallets, opened dollar-denominated bank accounts and transferred their savings overseas, as their neighbors in Argentina have long done.

Non-corporate and household capital flight rose to $ 29 billion in the twelve months to September, an increase of nearly 70% from reported outflows the previous year. Bond prices and the peso also fell sharply.

“It’s very new to Chile to see such risk-taking behavior,” said Jonah Rosenthal, a Latin American economist at the Institute of International Finance, a Washington-based trading group that represents major international banks. “For Chileans with capital, there is no roadmap to deal with uncertainty.”

In view of the recent upheaval in Chile and the increasingly polarized politics of South America, the two main candidates are a study of contrasts.

Boric, who grew up in the vast region of Patagonia where his Croatian ancestors settled, was known a decade ago as the leader of protests calling for better and cheaper education. Like a crowd of other student activists, he was elected to Congress in 2014, known for his informal attire, hipster tattoos, and at some point even a mohawk.

He denied criticism that he would snub the protocol and called such things “a tool used by the elites to differentiate themselves from the common people”.

Modeled after a left-wing coalition of the same name in Uruguay, the Broad Front, which he heads, has proposed raising corporate taxes – some of the lowest in the region – to help fund public service expansion and environmental protection.

He also wants to eliminate Chile’s privatized pension system – a hallmark of the Pinochet years that successive democratic governments hesitated, despite mounting evidence that the worker-only plan is not leaving tons of working-class Chileans to retire.

Kast is the son of a German who served in Hitler’s army during World War II and who emigrated to Chile in the 1950s. An open admirer of Brazil’s right-wing extremist President Jair Bolsonaro, his newly formed Republican Party wants to cut corporate taxes and state bureaucracy.

He has run a primarily law-and-order campaign that has fueled divisions on social issues such as abortion and LGBTQ rights, immigration, and the role of religion in schools.

He also criticizes the outgoing President of Chile, his conservative compatriot Sebastian Piñera, who reached an agreement with his political enemies – including Boric – on the constitution of the Pinochet era after massive protests caused by an increase in subway tariffs in Santiago were triggered to rewrite.

If elected, Kast could clash with the left-wing assembly that is drafting the new constitution, which in theory could shorten the next president’s term in office.

In true Chilean fashion, the last step both Boric and Kast have attempted to downplay their previous radicalism in hopes of attracting moderate voters, who make up the bulk of the electorate – a trend that would likely continue in a runoff election.

But many Chileans are not convinced, even if a later surge in the polls of Kast – whose brother was a University of Chicago-trained economist who designed Pinochet’s economic reforms – calmed the market tremors somewhat.

“As much as Boric tries to give his campaign platform significant opportunities, he will have the Communist Party next to him and they will not let up,” said Juan Sutil, the owner of a large food company and head of the influential Chamber of Commerce and Production.

Torres, who has already started transferring some of his savings in US dollars, also fears that pressing social demands will weaken Boric’s hand with his communist allies.

“They’ll run over him,” says Torres.

But others say that Chile, unique in a troubled region, is properly channeling discontent.

Sergio Bitar, who served in the socialist government of Salvador Allende, overthrown by Pinochet, and in several center-left governments since, said the myth of the Chilean “economic miracle” was long dead. On indicators such as household income and poverty, the country lags far behind its competitors in the Organization for Economic Development, a group of the 38 most advanced countries in the world.

Even so, he regrets that Boric and his supporters have chosen to focus much of their outrage on the moderates of the old days like himself.

“Let us hope that the youth do not make the same mistake as we do when they underestimate the right,” said Bitar, who was forced into exile for years after the 1973 Pinochet coup.

He said that while each generation tries to destroy the status quo it has inherited, political leadership requires both compromise and idealism.

“Politics is the art of the possible,” said Bitar, who fears that Chile’s best years may be behind him and that the country may lapse into a malaise of mediocrity seen elsewhere in the region. “No progress without controllability”

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Joshua Goodman reported from Miami.

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Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman


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