Former protest leader Boric seeks to bury Chile's 'neoliberal' past
SANTIAGO, Nov 17 (Reuters) - "If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave."
If one quote could sum up a candidate's platform - and send shivers through the traditional elite - it might be this one from Chilean former student protest leader and lawmaker Gabriel Boric, one of the front-runners in Sunday's presidential election.
The 35-year-old former law student, leading a leftist coalition of the broad Frente Amplio and the Communist Party, has a serious shot of becoming the copper-rich country's next leader.
Boric, who would be Chile's youngest ever president, is battling against 55-year-old far-right candidate Jose Antonio Kast, with opinion polls suggesting the two polar opposites could be set for a second-round run-off in December.
"Do not be afraid of the youth changing this country," Boric said when he won the candidacy of his leftist bloc. He pledged to bury Chile's "neoliberal" past of market-oriented policies that are widely considered to have helped drive decades of rapid economic growth but also stoked inequality.
Boric rose to prominence fighting that imbalance, leading student protests in 2011 demanding better quality and less expensive education - a process which launched the political careers of a cluster of other student leaders, too.
A native of Punta Arenas, in Chile's far south, he led the Federation of Students at the University of Chile in Santiago.
By 2014 Boric, still in his twenties, had joined the national Congress as a lower house lawmaker representing Chile's vast and sparsely populated southernmost region of Magallanes.
He was well-established by the time the Andean country exploded with angry social uprisings in 2019, which lit the fuse for the political rise of the progressive left and the redrafting of the Augusto Pinochet-era constitution.
With thick black hair and a trimmed beard, he is more groomed now than in his disheveled student leader days. Although a known face of the left in Chile, Boric was initially a dark horse candidate for the presidency.
He just reached the threshold of 35,000 signatures needed to be a candidate. But then he beat out the popular capital mayor Daniel Jadue - of the Communist Party - to lead the leftist alliance.
Like Kast, Boric has tempered his tone as the Nov. 21 vote has neared and he has slipped in the polls behind Kast. Pollsters are split over which of the two would win in a potential run-off on Dec. 19.
He has also looked to distance himself from some more extreme views from far-left groups in his alliance, including support from the Communist Party for the Venezuelan government of President Nicolas Maduro.
J.P. Morgan in a report highlighted the "restraint" that Boric has shown in some aspects of his speech and pointed to Peru's socialist President Pedro Castillo, who came to power proposing radical changes but has since moderated his stance.
"What I am convinced is that to do politics one has to be willing to sit down to dialogue, to debate firmly with those who think differently from you," Boric said in an interview with Chilean newspaper La Tercera at the end of 2019.
"Because staying in the comfort zone of speaking only with those who think the same as you can be satisfying, but it does not help make change."
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