SANTIAGO – Chileans go to the polls twice this year. Mayors, governors, and Constitutional Convention candidates will be elected in May, and the country’s next president, in November. Who’s running? In part 1 of this series, we meet the presidential hopefuls from the right-wing Chile Vamos coalition.
Three of the six presidential candidates from Chile’s conservative parties have previous electoral experience: current mayors Joaquín Lavín and Evelyn Matthei lost to their left-wing adversaries, while far-right candidate José Antonio Kast didn’t make it past the first round in 2017, and ultimately endorsed now-President Sebastián Piñera. The other three are new faces, and they all share a common denominator: serving in Piñera’s second administration: former Defense Minister Mario Desbordes, former Finance Minister Ignacio Briones, and former Social Development Minister Sebastián Sichel.
Joaquín Lavín: self-proclaimed reformed “Pinochetist”
Las Condes Mayor Joaquín Lavín is a career politician. He previously worked alongside former dictatorship Finance Minister Hernán Büchi to implement the neoliberal policies suggested by the Chicago Boys. After the regime, he became Mayor of Las Condes for the first time in 1992 and won a second term in 1996. In 1999, he took a run at president and lost to Ricardo Lagos by just 200,000 votes. In 2000, he went from Las Condes district to downtown Santiago. He ran for president again in 2005 but lost to Piñera, who subsequently appointed him minister twice.
Lavín is a member of the conservative UDI party, and his detractors say he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, insisting that deep down he’s still a “Pinochetist,” but he is popular in the polls for addressing social issues in his mayoral role.
Evelyn Matthei: Daughter of the Dictatorship
Economist Evelyn Matthei is the daughter of former air force general Fernando Matthei, who served under Pinochet. She jumped onto the political stage in the late 1980s, and in 1989 she was elected to Congress to represent the affluent electoral district that includes Las Condes, Vitacura, and Lo Barnechea. She later ascended to the Senate in 1997. In 2011, she worked as Work and Pensions Minister for Piñera’s first administration, even though, in 1992, Piñera had her wiretapped in an effort to undermine her. She currently serves as mayor of Providencia.
Her feisty attitude and sharp tongue have earned her a reputation among Chileans, especially her peers who have been caught up in heated arguments with her; and though her stances on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage were previously aligned with her conservative political party, she has moved to more liberal positions on these issues in recent years.
Matthei ran for president in 2013, but childhood-friend and Socialist candidate Michelle Bachelet won by over 1.3 million votes in the run-off.
José Antonio Kast: The Far-Right Candidate
Donald Trump and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro sympathizer, José Antonio Kast is one of the most controversial presidential candidates. Founder of the far-right Republican party, Kast is the son of German immigrants Michael Kast, who was a Nazi military officer, and Olga Rist.
During his time at Universidad Católica’s law school, he met 1980 Constitution mastermind Jaime Guzmán. As a staunch Pinochet supporter, Kast still openly supports the 1973 coup d’état and its aftermath, as well as the military officers who have been prosecuted for human rights violations.
In 2018, he was attacked while on tour across Chilean universities. Left-wing coalitions called his presentations hate-speech. Kast opposes immigration, especially from other Latin American countries, sexual diversity, and has even attacked indigenous minorities, especially the Mapuche people.
Kast’s political career began in 1996 when he was elected councilor of Santiago’s rural Buin municipality. Thereafter he was elected to Congress in 2001, 2005, 2009, and 2013. In 2017, he ran for president but won less than eight percent of the vote.
Mario Desbordes: From Police Station to La Moneda?
Former police officer, freemason and lawyer, Mario Desbordes entered politics in 2000 when he joined the center-right party National Renewal, but his big hit came when he supported Piñera in the latter’s first electoral campaign in 2009. His loyalty paid off and he was appointed Investigations Undersecretary until the position’s dissolution later that same year, when he was then moved to the Interior Ministry.
Recently, Desbordes has become a more prominent figure within his party, especially due to his sometimes-rebellious attitude. He told La Tercera in February 2021 that he hopes to offer a center-right government with a social focus, which raised eyebrows among party members. He understands the reasons for the social uprising in 2019 but defended the police response, even though he believes that reform is needed within the Carabineros (Chile’s national police force).
In 2017, Desbordes was elected to Congress but left his seat in July 2020 after Piñera appointed him Defense Minister.
Ignacio Briones: The “Not into Becoming President” Candidate
The “more liberal” center right Evópoli presidential candidate and economist Ignacio Briones is a somewhat new face in Chilean politics. He was in the background during Piñera’s first presidency in the Finance Ministry’s international finances department. Additionally, he served as Chile’s ambassador to the OECD economic group in 2013 and 2014.
Briones’ big break came in the aftermath of the estallido social. President Piñera appointed him Finance Minister on Oct. 29, 2019, and became part of the president’s Integral National Development Accord. Although the economist’s good intentions and “streetwise” attitude initially paid off, his popularity took a dive when he opposed the initial pension fund withdrawal. Briones remained in office until party officials decided to put him forward as a presidential candidate.
In the private sector, Briones taught at the Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez’s business and government schools. He also worked with pension fund manager AFP Capital and other private institutions.
Former Democratic Revolution member Javiera Parada, linked to left-wing legislators, openly endorsed Briones and is working on his presidential campaign. Despite this, his position in the polls is stagnant, and he is struggling to rise above one percent.
Sebastián Sichel: The “Unwanted” Candidate
Formerly a Christian Democrat, lawyer Sebastián Sichel ran for Congress to no avail in 2009 and 2013, and consequently left the party to join the newly-formed center party Ciudadanos (Citizens) in 2014. This union didn’t last long, as he publicly endorsed Piñera in the 2017 elections and distanced himself from Ciudadanos. Piñera appreciated Sichel’s gesture and appointed him vice-president of economic growth agency Corfo in 2018, even though he was still a member of the Ciudadanos party. Subsequently, he was appointed Family and Social Development Minister in June 2019, until Piñera moved him to the presidency of state bank BancoEstado.
Because Sichel isn’t a formal member of any of the parties of the Chile Vamos coalition, his candidacy is problematic as no one is willing to endorse him, meaning Sichel is currently running as an independent.
A self-described man “of the center,” Sichel was invited to the ruling coalition’s primaries, although he emphasized that “the right needs to widen its radius towards the center, otherwise it will end up being a minority.” His work for the Family and Social Development Ministry has also earned him many detractors because of the ministry’s lack of actions to support the working class during the pandemic.