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Chile's presidential election heads to a runoff on Dec. 19

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

There were celebrations on streets of cities in Chile overnight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Spanish).

INSKEEP: These are supporters of a far-right populist who came in first in the first round of yesterday's presidential election. His name is Jose Antonio Kast. The race there is seen as the most polarized since the end of a dictatorship in Chile more than 30 years ago. NPR's Philip Reeves is in the capital, Santiago. Hey there, Philip.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hi.

INSKEEP: So I guess it's springtime where you are. Must be lovely. How'd the election go?

REEVES: It is springtime. It is lovely. The election came with some spring surprises, I suppose you could say. Jose Antonio Kast is an ultraconservative, and he came first. Until recently, he was a fringe candidate, Steve. But there was a surge of support for him over the last month or so. And he wound up with 28%. A couple of points behind him came someone at the other end of the political scale, Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old former student leader from the left. But no one broke the 50% mark to win outright. So that's why these two now go through to a runoff next month.

INSKEEP: Well, I guess we don't want to draw too many conclusions, given that no one was anywhere near an actual majority. But how is it that a right-wing populist would do so well in a country that seemed to have been leaning to the left?

REEVES: Well, you know, the last few years have been very politically volatile in Chile, Steve. You know, it used to be seen as a model of stability in the region. But it's been a very turbulent time. You'll recall the mass anti-government protests in 2019 where millions took the streets, demanding an end to social inequality. That led to the election of a people's assembly, which is a broad cross-section of Chileans. They're now rewriting the Pinochet-era constitution. So the country's figuring out what kind of society it should be. And some Kast supporters told me last night that these fundamental changes made them - make them feel, you know, insecure, threatened. They include Alejandro Lopez (ph), who was in the crowd celebrating Kast's victory. He's 21, and he believes Chile's left has become just too radical in the last few years.

ALEJANDRO LOPEZ: They want to reconstruct the Chilean nation from its origin. They want to erase everything. They want to restart. We have to embrace our traditional values. We have to make Chile, like, more traditional again.

REEVES: I asked some of the Kast supporters about what they feel about Kast's words of praise for the Pinochet era. Here's Lucas Resler (ph), who's an engineering student.

LUCAS RESLER: I don't like that about him. But I can disagree with things and still like him as a president. I disagree in a lot of things with him, like environmentally, like, that kind of things.

REEVES: Now, that's interesting because Resler actually would have preferred to vote for a more moderate rightist but decided that that candidate stood no chance. So he switched. And I think that's been one of the main reasons Kast's done so well here.

INSKEEP: Philip, listening to you, I'm reminded that politics is very local but that it can also be very global. When we talk about the Pinochet regime, we're talking about a dictator from decades ago, so a story very specific that Chile. But you are also talking to voters who are saying things that resemble things that are being said in the United States and elsewhere. This is part of a big global debate. But it's not over in Chile yet. There has to be a runoff. How does it work?

REEVES: Well, that's right. And I hear echoes of the United States here. And I also hear echoes of Brazil. There are comparisons being made between Kast and Jair Bolsonaro, although it must be said that Kast is a more subdued figure. He doesn't have the same bloviating style that Bolsonaro has. But this is bringing, you know, the focus on a lot of rift within society. Kast is a devout Catholic with nine kids. His brother actually served in government during the Pinochet dictatorship. And now we're going to see a runoff between these two men. And I think because there is no one in the center, a lot of Chileans are not happy with the choice. So the country's facing a dramatic change of direction. And it's difficult to see how this is going to lead to the calm and security so many people crave.

INSKEEP: Stark choice ahead. NPR's Philip Reeves is in Santiago. Thanks so much.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.