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Politics is a rough business in Latin America. The battle in Chile over who will be the next president is shaping up as an especially hard-fought contest. Chileans voted yesterday in the election's first round. Two men from opposite ends of the political scale face a runoff next month. NPR's Philip Reeves reports from the capital, Santiago.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: A few months ago, few Chileans expected scenes like this. Results from yesterday's election are just in. Supporters of Jose Antonio Kast arrive at his campaign headquarters in Santiago for a night of celebration. When he entered the race, Kast was a fringe candidate, a populist from the far right. Yesterday he came first.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOSE ANTONIO KAST: (Speaking Spanish).
REEVES: Kast takes the stage for his victory speech. He launches an attack on his runoff opponent, Gabriel Boric, a former student leader. Boric heads a broad left coalition, including the Communist Party.
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KAST: (Speaking Spanish).
REEVES: Kast accuses Boric and his communist allies of trying to destabilize Chile. Kast's surprising success marks a big change in the political landscape. Two years ago, millions of Chileans took to the streets, demanding an end to the conservative economic model imposed by the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. This year the country elected a left-leaning assembly to rewrite the Constitution. Analysts say many Chileans turned to Kast because they're rattled by these changes, which they blame on leftists.
ALEJANDRO LOPEZ: They want to make a new Chile from ashes. They want to burn the existing Chile and make a new one that I don't like - deconstruct gender, deconstruct family, deconstruct values and traditions.
REEVES: Alejandro Lopez is in the crowd, celebrating Kast's success. He's 21. Lopez says he's delighted that Chile's far right is now mainstream.
LOPEZ: We wanted a right that defends its main values, even defending the best part of Pinochet. That is, like, a taboo now.
REEVES: Thousands of Chileans were murdered by the Pinochet regime that ended in 1990. Kast has a record of praising Pinochet's economic achievements. Also in the crowd is Lucas Ressler, an engineering student. Ressler says he actually wanted to vote for a center-right candidate but figured he stood no chance. He opted for Kast because...
LUCAS RESSLER: He gives me tranquility and safety about the security in the streets, economic security, stability - all that kind of thing.
JENNY PRIBBLE: I think that Kast's performance is in part explained by a very far-right dimension of support concerned with law and order. But I also think it's explained by the collapse of the traditional parties.
REEVES: Professor Jenny Pribble of Richmond University is an expert in Chilean politics. Kast got 28% of yesterday's vote and Boric 26. That's way short of the 50%-plus one needed to win outright. Both are in a battle to broaden their base before the December the 19 runoff, says Pribble.
PRIBBLE: I think that Kast has a slightly easier path to victory than Boric. I think what he will have to do is try to convince those voters that he respects the rules of democracy, that he's not going to undermine the rules of democracy.
REEVES: Much is at stake. Chile is deeply polarized. Many Chileans resent being asked to make a choice between the hard right and the left.
LIGIA HERRERA: (Speaking Spanish).
REEVES: I'm worried, says Ligia Herrera as she lined up to vote in Santiago yesterday. She's a nurse. Herrera dislikes the left yet fears a Kast presidency would erode women's rights and cut taxes for the rich. Chile doesn't need that right now, she says. It needs social justice.
Philip Reeves, NPR News, Santiago.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This story incorrectly referred to the University of Richmond as Richmond University.]
(SOUNDBITE OF L'IMPERATRICE SONG, "LA-HAUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.