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A decade ago, Gabriel Boric was a long-haired 25-year old leading thousands of clamouring students through the streets of the Chilean capital with megaphone in hand, demanding free education for all.
Boric was part of a radical generation of student leaders who were catapulted into the spotlight in 2011 during an uprising against the disparities in Chile’s education system.
Those protests radicalized a generation and are now seen as a precursor to the wider outbreak of social unrest which exploded across the country in October 2019.
Now, after two terms in congress, Boric has stormed into Chile’s presidential race, winning more than 60% of the vote to become candidate for the country’s leftwing coalition in November’s election.
Boric took more than 1m votes in Sunday’s primary, scoring a decisive victory over the Communist party candidate Daniel Jadue, and vowed to lead the assault on Chile’s Pinochet-era economic model.
“Something beautiful and exciting is happening here, friends,” he declared on a small stage outside his campaign headquarters in the capital, Santiago.
“We come from social movements [and] were shaped politically by the struggles which have been building throughout history … If Chile was the birthplace of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave!” he proclaimed, fist raised into the night sky.
Boric, a law graduate from Magallanes, Chile’s southernmost region, encompassing Tierra del Fuego’s dramatic fjords and islets, promised unity and inclusion.
Meanwhile, the former social development minister and state bank president Sebastián Sichel, fought off competition from a conservative mayor and two other former ministers to win a four-way rightwing primary.
Victories for Sichel and Boric suggest that while many Chileans want change after a tumultuous 18 months of protests and quarantines, they were unwilling to look to the extremes on either side of the political spectrum.
“This is just the beginning for the 2011 protest leaders,” said Javiera Arce, a political scientist at the University of Valparaíso. “Boric has learned from the mistakes of the past and sought to forge agreements – this is an incredibly important generation in Chile’s political history.”
Leaders from the 2011 student uprising, including Boric’s political adviser Giorgio Jackson and the Communist party politicians Camila Vallejo and Karol Cariola, joined Boric to congratulate him on his victory.
All four are serving their second terms in congress, having entered politics soon after leaving university.
Chilean politics has undergone a dramatic metamorphosis since October 2019, when a wave of protests saw millions of people flood the streets to denounce inequalities and injustices rife across society.
Boric faced criticism in some quarters for his willingness to break bread with the established political class when he signed a cross-party “peace accord”, in November 2019. But the agreement ultimately paved the way for Chile to replace its 1980 Pinochet-era constitution – a process that began this month.
His campaign was able to mobilise significant numbers of people to vote for a political project that focuses on social welfare, decentralisation of the state and a more equitable division of Chile’s resources.
In November’s vote, Sichel and Boric will confront the far-right Republican party candidate José Antonio Kast, while the Socialist party’s Paula Narváez, a former government spokesperson, and centrist Yasna Provoste, the president of Chile’s senate, are also mulling over their candidacies following Sunday’s primaries.
This article was amended on 20 July 2021. An earlier version suggested that Paula Narváez and Yasna Provoste were certain to be presidential candidates; neither has yet confirmed they will stand.