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Ultra-conservative José Antonio Kast leads his leftist rival Gabriel Boric in Chile’s presidential election, which is set to go to a second round next month.

With more than 80 per cent of ballots counted, Kast had 28 per cent of the vote in the first round, narrowly ahead of Boric with 25 per cent. Both candidates, who are running as independents, were well short of the 50 per cent majority needed on Sunday to win outright, according to the nation’s electoral body, Serval.

Chileans will return to the polls on December 19 for the decisive second round.

Candidates from the centre-left and centre-right struggled to secure barely 25 per cent of the public vote combined, in a resounding rejection of Chile’s mainstream parties.

President Sebastián Piñera’s ruling coalition candidate, Sebastián Sichel, came forth with 12 per cent. Yasna Provoste, from the centre-left, was narrowly behind him with 11 per cent. Piñera still faces four more months in office. His approval rating is hovering at 20 per cent, meaning he risks ending his term in March more unpopular than Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

The elections have been seen as a referendum on the Chilean economic model that has delivered some of the best growth in Latin America in recent decades but failed to share the benefits widely among the population.

The two leading candidates have offered starkly different visions for the country’s future.

Kast, a 55-year-old former congressman and father of nine, has campaigned on a platform of cracking down on crime while defending free markets and traditional values.

Kast has spoken out against immigration, same-sex marriage and abortion. He has appealed to Chilean voters alienated by the left, promising to restore order and slash taxes under his new nationalist Republican party that he founded in 2019.

Boric is a 35-year-old congressman and radical former student leader. He has vowed to scrap the private pension system and bury the country’s “neoliberal” past of market-oriented policies that have failed to narrow social divisions. He is running as part of a broad leftwing coalition that includes the Chilean Communist party.

Boric, who would become the country’s youngest president in more than two centuries if elected, has described the so-called “Chilean miracle” as “just for the outside world, not for us”.

The presidential ballot is the first since the estallido, or explosion, of anti-government demonstrations in 2019, triggered by fare increases on the Santiago metro, that quickly escalated into anger over high living costs and income inequality.

“Those who are poor, die poor. The riches of our country are badly distributed,” said Carolina Cavieres, a 35-year-old mother of two who was casting her vote on Sunday in La Pintana, a working-class suburb to the south of Santiago.

Outside the polling station, 50-year-old José Peredo, who moved to La Pintana in 1983 when it was still countryside, gestured towards the lines of cramped social housing overlooking a congested highway. He said Chileans were disillusioned because “[the elite] want all the cake for themselves . . . they promised us equality if we became a democracy, and see what we have”.

Gabriel Boric casts his vote on Sunday. He is running as part of a broad leftwing coalition that includes the Chilean Communist party © JOSE MIGUEL CARDENAS/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The central issue is not that people are extremely poor, said Marta Lagos, a Chilean pollster and sociologist based in Santiago. “People in Chile have the basics” when compared to other Latin American countries, she said, but they are not equally shared.

“Where is Mr Joe Average? He doesn’t exist,” Lagos said, pointing to how at least 50 per cent of the population in Chile earns less than $800 per month, below the national GDP per capita of $1,100 recorded last year by the World Bank.

“People are calling for the redistribution of wealth to change, that’s why candidates like Boric have emerged,” she added.

A new Congress, regional councillors and more than half of the senate was also up for grabs.

That new Congress will need to approve a new text of the current constitution that will be put to a plebiscite in the third quarter of next year. In July, a voter-approved assembly began drafting a replacement for the current deeply divisive constitution, adopted in 1980 in the middle of General Augusto Pinochet’s regime.

The constitution favours private enterprise, which its supporters say has driven the country’s vigorous growth and lifted millions out of poverty. But for many it represents a direct link to the dictatorship, despite numerous modifications. The new assembly could weaken the president’s powers and expand the scope of the Chilean state.

Abstentions were expected to be high. Roughly 50 per cent of the population was likely to have turned out to vote on Sunday, with final results expected Monday an “optimistic estimate,” said Lagos. Unlike in other Latin American countries, voting in Chile is voluntary. Low participation is driven in part by “immense” voter apathy and a “crisis of representation” within the mainstream parties, Lagos added.

Peredo from La Pintana said he had tried to convince his son over lunch to join him at the polling station. “I’ve got debts for 20 years, it takes months to see a doctor and crime is only getting worse,” he said. “We have to do something.”