SANTIAGO, Chile -- When Chileans went to the polls last month, Elizabeth Padilla, like more than half of eligible voters in the South American country, stayed home, not feeling represented by any of the seven candidates on the ballot.
But her apathy suddenly lifted when a politician she feared, José Antonio Kast finished first. In recent days, as Chileans gear up for a runoff pitting the far-right candidate against leftist lawmaker Gabriel Boric, the 45-year-old artist has been hanging campaign posters in her downtown Santiago neighborhood and warning friends of what she sees as a serious threat to women if Kast wins.
“We are four sisters and I have three nieces. I'm very worried about what could happen," said Padilla, who has spent many a sleepless night contemplating a return of “fascism” in a country that until 1990 was governed by a military dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who Kast has defended. “The truth is I didn't know there were so many people who think like this."
It's a sentiment shared widely by Chilean women, especially younger urban professionals, who are shaping up to be the clincher in a tight race between political extremes battling for Chile's future.
Kast, the 55-year-old founder of the fledgling Republican Party, secured 28% of the vote on Nov. 21, edging out Boric by two points. Historically, every candidate in Chile who led in the first round of balloting went on to prevail in the head-to-head runoff.
Emerging from dictatorship, Chilean women voted in larger numbers and favored conservative candidates more consistently than their male compatriots, perhaps fearing a return of the turmoil seen during the 1970-1973 rule of the toppled socialist President Salvador Allende, when women, then mostly stuck in the kitchen, banged on pots and pans to protest food shortages.
But the gender gap abruptly closed with the election in 2005 of leftist Michelle Bachelet, which triggered a “pink wave” of presidential victories for women across the region.
Several opinion polls indicate that this time women are flocking in droves to Boric — a millennial who uses non-binary pronouns from the stump — as he capitalizes on Kast’s long record of sexist comments and policy goals seen as out of step with fast changing societal norms.
“Don't vote for the Nazi. No, no, no,” a few thousand women shouted Wednesday at boisterous feminist rally in downtown Santiago against Kast, the son of a German immigrant who was recently revealed to be a card-carrying member of Adolf Hitler's political party.
Giovanna Roa, who was in attendance, said that a Kast victory would be a major setback for women.
“Kast explicitly wants to move us back to a place we already left behind,” said the 34-year-old Roa, a member of the convention redrafting Pinochet's constitution — the first such institution in the world where gender parity is mandatory. “He wants us hidden and out of the public arena.”
Chile, despite its reputation as one of Latin America's most socially conservative countries, has always had a combative feminist movement that in recent years has made great strides passing laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, loosen abortion restrictions and boost the representation of women in politics.
One sign of its strength is the feminist anthem “A Rapist in Your Path,” which has been adopted by activists across the world to denounce violence against women since first being performed during a wave of anti-government protests in 2019.
The rise of Kast, in the eyes of his critics, is a backlash against those gains and the emergence in Chile of a kind of identity politics that has roiled democracies across the world.
Polls show that he has made inroads with middle-class and rural voters who fear that Boric — a former student protest leader who doesn't shy away from vindicating Allende — would disrupt three decades of economic and political stability that has made Chile the envy of many in Latin America.
Kast, who has donned Donald Trump's “Make America Great Again” hat in television interviews, has recently started to walk back some of his past views to shore up support among women.
But courting the key voting bloc was made harder when a video surfaced days after the first round in which a key supporter, YouTuber-turned-congressman-elect Johannes Kaiser, can be heard mocking voting rights for women — which dates to 1949 — if its end result is that “schizophrenic” women keep supporting parties that welcome immigrants who threaten to rape women when they go jogging in the park.
As a lawmaker in 2004, Kast voted against legislation legalizing divorce — a position he reaffirmed as recently as 2010. In an interview during the campaign he said it was no longer an issue.
In a 2018 newspaper column, he attacked Chile's most famous actress, Daniela Vega, referring to the transgender star of the Academy Award-winning film “A Fantastic Woman” as a man. His column opposed a bill — later passed — allowing individuals to select their gender identity on legal documents.
“I wouldn't write (the newspaper column) in the same terms,” he said in a televised debate this week, adding that he would respect the existing legislation.
The campaign platform he presented ahead of the first round of voting opposes same-sex marriage — which Chile's congress approved this month by a wide majority — and vows to tighten Chile's already restrictive abortion laws, which allows a woman to terminate pregnancy only in the case of rape, when the fetus won't survive or the mother's health is at risk.
The 204-page document instead highlights “family-focused” policies such as marriage courses, incentives to have babies and health care subsidies for married women. The platform also calls for the elimination of the Ministry of Women — a position he has since abandoned.
“I want to confess that we made a mistake,” said Kast, surrounded by female supporters, at a campaign rally this month highlighting policies he said would promote women. “We ask for forgiveness. We changed positions and clearly we aren’t only going to keep the Ministry of Women but we are going to strengthen it.”
In sharp contrast, the 35-year-old Boric seems to embrace his portrayal by the far right as Chile's first “woke” presidential candidate.
On the stump, he addresses supporters using gender-neutral terms popular with only a handful of fellow Chilean millennials and not found in traditional Spanish grammar. His unmarried partner, a fellow activist, said she's not interested in serving as first lady, a traditional role she believes Chile has outlived.
Unlike Kast, Boric also refused to appear on the online “Bad Boys” program hosted by the surprise third place finisher, Franco Parisi, who garnered more than 13% of first round votes. In rejecting the invitation, Boric cited Parisi's large child-support debt to his ex wife.
“Electorally it would be profitable. … However I believe that in elections as in life one has to be guided by principles,” he said.
Recent polls show that women and young voters overwhelmingly favor Boric, sometimes by as much as 20 points.
“In a tight race, a spike in votes from young women, who tend to skew more left wing and feel threatened by Kast's conservative discourse, may make a big difference,” said Marcela Rios, a political scientist at the United Nations Development Program in Chile who has focused on gender issues. “It all depends on turnout.”
But outside the capital, where traditional gender roles have changed less, it's unclear how deep support for Boric really is among women.
To be sure, Boric has not been exempt of criticism for his past behavior toward woman.
In July, following Boric’s victory in a primary, a fellow activist denounced what she said were “acts of violence” involving the leftist standard bearer in 2012, when he headed the student union at the University of Chile. It’s unclear what transpired but Boric, who she said acted like a “harassing pig,” recently apologized to the woman, who in turn has accused Kast of “ unscrupulous and violent ” promotion of the incident.
Boric’s mother says she’s partly to blame for any of her son's lingering machismo.
“I raised him with basically a sexist mentality ... because that's how I was taught too,” María Soledad Font said in an interview her home in southern Chile.
But over time, after Boric traveled to Santiago for college and expanded his horizons, he began to shed what she called the “old Gabriel."
”He made it a goal to listen and understand," said Font, showing her son's childhood bedroom — replete with framed soccer jerseys, a photo of Cuban guerrilla leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara and spray-painted slogans from the French Revolution. "That's when he began to see (men and women) are equal in values and talents."
Goodman reported from Miami. Claudio Monge contributed to this report from Punta Arenas, Chile.