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Chileans head to polls in polarized presidential election

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Millions of people have also been voting today in Chile. They are selecting a new president in what's widely seen as the most polarized election in decades in that South American nation. Their front-runners include a far-right populist and a young leftist former student leader. To learn more, we're joined now by NPR's Philip Reeves, who is in Chile's capital, Santiago. Philip, thanks so much for joining us.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: You're welcome.

MARTIN: So could you just first bring us up to date? How has Election Day been going so far in Chile?

REEVES: Oh, it's been a beautiful spring day in Santiago - blue Sky, no clouds. I traveled around polling stations and saw very long lines of people standing patiently, anxiously and largely silently under the sun. Chileans don't usually turn out for elections in massive numbers, but people told me they've never seen lines like this. Now, whether this is COVID - because of COVID restrictions slowing up the process or whether there really was a big turnout, we don't yet know. But the lines went on all day. And when the polling stations closed, there were some angry exchanges between officials and groups of people who had been unable to cast their vote in time.

MARTIN: Now, you've been telling us of - what a polarized election this has been. Why is this such a divisive election for the country?

REEVES: Yeah. I mean, I should say we don't know the outcome yet. There are seven candidates. But very early results point to two front-runners - Jose Antonio Kast, a far-right populist who's been compared with Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil - and until pretty recently, he was a fringe candidate - and the other is Gabriel Boric, who's just 35 and made his name as the leader of student protests a decade ago. Boric leads a broad coalition on the left that's allied to the Communist Party. Now, if no candidate gets above 50%, we'll have a runoff next month, and that could be between Kast and Boric. Now, I met Mateos Contreras (ph) waiting in line to vote, and he's a dentist. And the idea that Chile will face a stark choice between hard right and the left worries him.

MATOES CONTRERAS: I don't think that it's going to be possible to have a country in peace. Whether it's left or right, I don't think that it's going to be a happy ending.

REEVES: And that's a view I heard from a number of voters today.

MARTIN: Now, Philip, I think many people will remember the Chileans suffered horribly during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, which ended in 1990. Thousands of people were disappeared, meaning they were abducted and murdered for their opposition to the dictatorship. So how is it that someone from the far right can be a leading contender for the presidency?

REEVES: Well, that's a particularly sensitive issue in this election. Kast's opponents have been hammering him over his record of expressing sympathy for aspects of the Pinochet dictatorship. But, you know, these have been turbulent times in Chile. Two years ago, Chile was plunged into chaos by mass anti-government protests that led to the election of a people's assembly that's now rewriting the Constitution. And the economy, of course, like so many places, has been battered by the pandemic. You know, added together, that's made conservative Chileans feel insecure, and the far right plays on that fear, just as it does elsewhere, by portraying its opponents as dangerous communists and promising a return to traditional family values. I spoke to Kast supporters who talked about how that matters to them. This is Maria Angelica Lerengas (ph) who's 65.

MARIA ANGELICA LERENGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: She says that, to her, Kast represents hope, and that's why she wants to vote for him.

MARTIN: So when will we know who's won?

REEVES: Well, they count quickly here, and so we should know in the coming hours.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Philip Reeves speaking to us from Santiago, Chile. Philip, thank you so much.

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