Chile’s presidential race enters final stretch amid accusation of ‘dirty campaign’

·4-min read

Voters will choose on Sunday between left-wing candidate Gabriel Boric and the far-right's Jose Antonio Kast, who won the first round of Chile's presidential election. For the past month, Kast has been intensifying his personal attacks on Boric in an attempt to win the race, but the outcome remains highly uncertain.

"To clear up the doubts of the far-right candidate, I leave you the results of my drug test. Enough lies." Boric tweeted this message on December 14 along with a document showing analyses carried out at the beginning of November by a Santiago laboratory indicating that neither cannabis, cocaine nor amphetamines were detected in his bloodstream.

The day before, Boric had presented this same document during a televised debate with his rival Kast when both men were questioned about their measures in the fight against drug trafficking. Kast said that he regretted that Boric had not agreed to submit to a drug test.

It is in the context of this smear campaign that Chileans will vote for their next president on Sunday. Kast’s attacks caused the 35-year-old Boric to condemn the "dirty campaign" of his far-right opponent, which has been punctuated by numerous fake news rumours that collapsed under scrutiny by journalists.

Kast, a 55-year-old lawyer who has won four terms as a member of parliament, had already attacked Boric in a previous debate by referring to an assault complaint made by a young woman, before apologising the next day for the term used and indicating that he was in fact referring to a case of harassment. The victim later said she had received an apology from Boric for "macho attitudes" and complained she was being exploited by Kast.

Pinochet defender

"Kast has led a somewhat dirty campaign of discrediting Boric, attacking Boric's personality more than his political agenda. This is a very new approach for Chile," said Pamela Figueroa Rubio, a political scientist at the University of Santiago de Chile (USACH), speaking with FRANCE 24.

Kast’s supporters have taken it upon themselves to share these attacks as much as possible in an attempt to undermine his left-wing opponent, who has tried to respond by being as transparent as possible. Boric had already taken such an approach when he was an MP in 2018, by publicly confessing to a stay in a psychiatric hospital to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder. Since then, his detractors have liked to claim that he suffers from bipolar disorder.

In addition to these ad hominem attacks, Kast has made numerous false statements, such as denying that he criticised the "gay dictatorship" in Chile. It didn’t take long for media outlets to repost a 2017 tweet in which Kast, who was opposed to the legalisation of gay marriage, published a photo of the presidential palace of La Moneda illuminated with rainbow colours, accompanied with a caption stressing that public institutions belong to all Chileans and not to minorities. Marriage equality was finally signed into law in Chile this month.

The clear winner of the election's first round, Kast garnered support from the country's centre-right establishment. He has shown notable caution in recent weeks to try to attract an even wider electorate, most obviously by toning down certain very conservative positions. He has even dialled down his plan to abolish the ministry for women and gender equality, a campaign promise that he now describes as a "mistake".

He also takes care now not to mention Augusto Pinochet, a man whose economic record Kast has often defended. In 2017, when he was running for the presidency for the first time, Kast said that if the former dictator, who had died ten years earlier, was still alive, Pinochet would have voted for him.

Former president Michelle Bachelet’s support

The various confrontations over the last four weeks have nevertheless allowed the two men to debate their ideas, particularly on the economy, where Boric's vision of greater state involvement in certain sectors clashes with Kast's liberal ideas. "This presidential election marks a transition to a new political cycle because the president-elect will have to accompany the Constituent Assembly and the process of drafting a new constitution," said Figueroa Rubio.

>> Indigenous Mapuche woman to take lead in drafting Chile's post-Pinochet constitution

In this respect, the progressive Boric seems to be well-positioned. In order to win the election's second round, he has gathered key influential political endorsements, including that of former Chilean president and UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet, who has called for voters to support Boric.

"This support can have an important impact on those who doubt Boric's ability to govern," said Figueroa Rubio, underlining the popularity Bachelet still enjoys after her two presidential terms. Many members of the Chilean cultural and intellectual scene are also involved in the campaign to encourage the many abstainers in the first round to vote on Sunday and choose Boric. This last-minute mobilisation could prove crucial amid so much uncertainty as to which candidate will prevail.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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