By Natalia A. Ramos Miranda
SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Chilean ultra-conservative Jose Antonio Kast, sometimes likened to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro or former U.S. President Donald Trump, has made a rapid surge in opinion polls and is now the front-runner in Sunday’s presidential election.
The 55-year-old lawyer, a Catholic and father of nine, is disarmingly softly spoken, even as he promises a tough approach on crime and a streamlined state. He has praised the “economic legacy” of former dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Kast, the candidate for the Christian Social Front, has become a flagbearer of the “unapologetic” right wing in Chile, 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 late October.
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 Trump.
But he has played down those comparisons and as the Nov. 21 vote has approached and his polling numbers have climbed has looked to soften his image, as well as seeking to maintain distance between himself and the unpopular ruling center-right government of Sebastian Pinera.
“We want to unite, we want to dialogue with everyone, regardless of political hue,” he told business leaders in an event on Nov. 11. “I am a direct and frank person, but I am always respectful.”
To his critics Kast is a throwback from the era of brutal dictatorship under Pinochet in the 1970s and 1980s, which while establishing much of Chile’s successful economic model created a wide gap between a small rich elite and most Chileans.
Kast’s brother, Michael, was a minister in the military regime. Jose Kast ran for president in 2017, coming in fourth place, saying then that if Pinochet were still alive he would have voted for him.
‘DARE TO DREAM’
Opinion polls suggest Kast is slightly ahead of his main rival, 35-year-old former student leader Gabriel Boric. The most likely outcome is a split vote with a run-off in December.
Kast 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.
“Let us dare to dream. It is the hour of hope, the hour of reconstruction,” he said at the meeting with business leaders. He has pledged to defend Chile’s widely copied free-market model and support enterprise.
“To those who took their resources out of Chile, I hope they bring them back.”
Kast has little patience with protesters and has questioned the work of an elected assembly that is drafting a new constitution to replace the Pinochet-era text.
He has also promised to use a strong hand to tackle tensions with indigenous Mapuche in the south. He has described acts such as arson and clashes with security forces as “terrorism” – which has gone down well with some voters.
“Every time there is an act of violence in Santiago or La Araucania, Kast rises one point,” said political analyst Cristobal Bellolio.
(Reporting by Natalia Ramos; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Rosalba O’Brien)