(Bloomberg) -- Chilean presidential candidate Jose Antonio Kast is 55 years old, has nine children and is a member of the Catholic Schoenstatt movement. His rival, Gabriel Boric, is 20 years younger, agnostic and single with no children, and once said monogamy wasn’t the only option.
You couldn’t get two more different people to face off in Chile’s runoff presidential election set for Dec. 19. It’s shaping up to be as much a battle of generations, or cultures, as it is one of economic ideologies.
As a student leader in the late 1980s, Kast was a fervent admirer of late dictator Augusto Pinochet. He was also part of a generation that upheld bans on abortion under any circumstance and made Chile one of a handful of countries in the world where divorce was illegal.
Boric first became known as a student leader a decade ago when the country was convulsed by protests demanding better education standards. More recently, he’s apologized for any sexist comments he made in the past and has joined feminists in demanding the overthrow of the patriarchal society. It’s not a deconstruction of attitudes that Kast would contemplate.
The differences are immediately clear in their political manifestos.
The second theme on Kast’s website is “defending the family,” with a photo of a smiling couple and their child. The second topic on Boric’s platform is “feminism,” with an image of a woman’s fist raised in defiance.
Kast’s program has alarmed women’s rights groups.
“Many of the measures on his original program represent a significant setback in terms of gender equality,” said Alejandra Sepulveda, the executive president of organization Comunidad Mujer. “One doesn’t see in Kast’s trajectory a genuine conviction to advance women’s rights.”
Next week senators and deputies are expected to vote on a proposal to allow same-sex marriage, a bill that’s been stuck in congress since 2017. The measure has been supported by center-right President Sebastian Pinera, but criticized by more conservative politicians including Kast.
While cultural issues on their own may not swing the election, gender equality was tied for third place among the most relevant issues in a poll conducted by Cadem, trailing only social rights and crime.
In late 2019, street protests against inequality erupted across Chile. The movement was driven by anger over the neo-liberal economic model, and also against traditional pillars of society including the church, police and big business.
For many, the protests were the violent culmination of 20 years of change that has transformed Chile from a conservative, authoritarian society into a more open, secular one. Boric can be seen to embody that cultural change. Kast represents the reaction against it.
“Boric responds to cultural patterns that have to do with the defense of environmental rights, gender equality, and rights of indigenous peoples,” said Claudio Fuentes, a political analyst and professor at Universidad Diego Portales. “Instead, Kast promotes more traditional values, the family and the concept of nation.”
A strong participation by young voters could bolster Boric in the runoff, according to Fuentes. Recent polls show Boric ahead of Kast by more than 10 points. Though Kast and center-right candidates performed better than expected in the first round vote on Nov. 21.
Turnout has been poor in Chile since voting was made optional in 2012. The first round saw just 47% of eligible voters cast a ballot.
Kast may still pivot to soften his view on some issues ahead of the runoff, including plans to rename the Women’s Ministry.
“It isn’t an obstacle for us to modify some parts of our program,” Kast said on Nov. 24.
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