SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Chilean ultra-conservative presidential candidate Jose Antonio Kast, sometimes likened to Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro and a defender of former dictator General Augusto Pinochet, is riding a wave of voter anger and fear over immigration and crime.
The 55-year-old lawyer, a Catholic and father of nine, will compete against leftist lawmaker Gabriel Boric, twenty years his junior, in a polarized and delicately balanced run-off election on Sunday. He is marginally behind in opinion polls.
Although softly spoken, Kast promises a tough approach on crime and a streamlined state. He has attacked Boric over his alliance with Chile’s Communist Party within a wide leftist coalition and posed himself as a defender of stability.
“This December we won’t just elect a president, we will choose between liberty and communism,” he said in a speech after he came top in the first-round vote in November.
He has since softened his rhetoric, helping win over some moderate voters and narrow the gap on Boric, but has kept a focus on law and order.
“Tough times are coming and a government that provides stability is required, one that speaks the truth,” Kast said in the final debate with Boric on Monday night.
The candidate for the right-wing Christian Social Front coalition, Kast has praised the legacy of Pinochet, whose bloody rule in the 1970s and 1980s established much of Chile’s market-oriented economic system. That chimes with some voters, who still admire the former dictator.
“If he were alive he would vote for me,” he told local newspaper La Tercera in 2017 when campaigning then – unsuccessfully – to be president. “If I had met him now, we would have had a cup of tea at La Moneda (presidential palace).”
Kast has played up his credentials as a flagbearer of Chile’s “unapologetic” right wing, which has hardened in response to the rise of the progressive political left in the wake of angry and sometimes violent street protests in 2019.
“They call us intolerant and extreme, because we speak the truth and say things head-on. Unlike the left, we have never endorsed violence,” Kast wrote on Twitter in October.
The conservative has pledged to build back economic growth and “restore” order after the 2019 protests, which saw buildings around capital Santiago burned and thousands injured in street conflicts with the police.
Critics say his treatment of the political class – he has called Congress a “circus” – and proposals that have included building a ditch to curb illegal immigration are reminiscent of right-wing populist leaders like Bolsonaro and former U.S. President Donald Trump.
He has downplayed those comparisons.
“We want to unite, we want to dialogue with everyone, regardless of political hue,” he told business leaders last month. “I am a direct and frank person, but I am always respectful.”
(Reporting by Natalia Ramos; Additional reporting by Sarah Marsh in Berlin; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Rosalba O’Brien)