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The Chilean right wins first round in presidential elections

By Antonio Castillo - posted Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Two decades after the end of the military dictatorship in Chile, the political right has a realistic chance of winning power after its leader - the billionaire entrepreneur Sebastián Piñera - won the first round in the recent presidential elections in Chile.

The tycoon - whose political right wing supporters were uncritical and loyal allies of the former dictator August Pinochet - obtained 44 per cent of the votes, still well below the 50 per cent required for victory.

Piñera will face - on January 17 - the candidate of the centre-left Coalition for Democracy, Eduardo Frei, in a run off election. Eduardo Frei, a Christian Democrat, obtained 30 per cent of the votes in the first round. Behind him came Marco Enríquez-Ominami, an independent, young, fast-talking candidate and Jorge Arrate a former socialist who became the head of a Communist led coalition.


The winner of the first round - Sebastián Piñera - is a financial speculator who has amassed extraordinary wealth. A Chilean version of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi - Piñera’s vast financial empire consists of the Chilean airline LAN - whose routes include the Sydney-Santiago service - and Chile’s television network Chilevisión. He also has stakes in Colo-Colo, the country’s most successful soccer club (Berlusconi owns AC Milan) and has million dollar investments in pharmacies, forestry and financial institutions.

“If Piñera wins in January, we will be flying in his airline, we will get our medicines from his pharmacies and we will be watching his television programs,” Cecilia Albornoz, a schoolteacher in the northern city of La Serena, told me.

The fears of this schoolteacher are well founded. While the right presented a solid united block, the ruling Coalition is profoundly divided. This division was most evident during the pre-selection of Frei as its candidate.

Frei was not chosen for his political capacity, but because of a turgid political quota system played out inside the Coalition. The Christian Democrats - a major partner in the Coalition - wanted Frei to succeed President Michelle Bachelet, a member of the Socialist half of the Coalition.

All along Frei was the wrong man. Frei served as president from 1996-2000, a period where Chile experienced major social and economic decline. He had nothing new to offer. During the pre-election - and as shown in the final result of last weekend - Frei failed to capitalise on the tremendous popularity of the current president Michelle Bachelet, who enjoyed 80 per cent of approval at the end of her mandate.

After two decades in power the Coalition is divided and tired. During the first year of the post-dictatorship transition to democracy - in the 1990s - the Coalition was glued together through fear of a return to dictatorship. As the transition progressed, this glue dried and cracked. Ideological differences and individual party ambitions began emerging.


Chileans have lost faith in the ruling conglomerate. As I observed in the large cities of Chile such as Santiago, Concepción and La Serena - during the days prior to last weekend’s election - Chileans are fed up with the Coalition’s increasing level of corruption, political nepotism and internal infighting.

During the long campaign that preceded last weekend election, the right showed discipline and cohesion. Piñera was able to construct a progressive discourse that appealed to the political centre and to the middle class. The middle class is a sector that has grown increasingly dissatisfied with the Coalition management of the economy.

While the January 17 run-off will be a close encounter and the Coalition could pull this off, Piñera is better positioned than Frei to win. The main problem is that Frei has failed- at least so far - to gain the support and endorsement of Enríquez-Ominami and Arrate. Frei desperately needs the votes of these two.

Piñera on the other hand has a wider pool of potential voters. He might be able to lure voters who don’t necessarily sympathise with the right but are disappointed with Coalition’s performance. He could also grab some of Frei’s core supporters, mainly Christian Democrats, who are not happy with a parliamentary deal made between the Coalition and the Communist Party. And he might be able to regain the vote of the young right - whose more liberal wing attracted by his youth and modern approach, voted for Enríquez-Ominami.

In a “vote by vote” run off scenario, any extra votes will be crucial for the final outcome.

On January 17, Sebastian Piñera might put an end to two decades of Coalition government. And importantly, this could mark the return to government by the Chilean right. The last time the right occupied La Moneda - the old colonial government house - was as part as the civilian apparatus of the military dictatorship of general Pinochet. It may well be a Chilean summer to forget.

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About the Author

Antonio Castillo is a journalist and academic at the RMIT. He has a special interest in democracy and international news. His books include Journalism in the Chilean Transition to Democracy (2009). He is the editor of Global Media Journal, Australian edition.

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