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ELECTIONS-CHILE: Presidency in Sight for the Right

SANTIAGO, Dec 14 2009 (IPS) - The right in Chile has not come so close to winning the presidency since Gen. Augusto Pinochet stepped down in March 1990, bringing a 17-year dictatorship to an end.

Right-wing business tycoon Sebastián Piñera emerged from Chile’s elections Sunday as the front-runner for the Jan. 17 runoff, with a 14-point lead on the ruling centre-left coalition’s candidate Eduardo Frei.

The last time the right won elections was 1958, when conservative president Jorge Alessandri was voted to a six-year term.

Piñera’s strong lead over former president Frei was not the only novel aspect of Sunday’s elections. The Communist Party, excluded from the legislature for 37 years, will once again have a presence in Congress, while independent centre-left candidate Marco Enríquez-Ominami capitalised on voter fatigue with the Concertación por la Democracia coalition, which has been in power for 20 years, garnering 20 percent of the vote.

According to the nearly complete vote count, Piñera took 44 percent of the vote, followed by Frei with 30 percent, breakaway socialist Enríquez-Ominami with 20 percent, and Jorge Arrate, who was backed by the Communist Party and other small left-wing groups, with six percent.

It is a given that Arrate’s voters will back Frei in the second round. That means the challenge for Piñera and the governing coalition candidate is winning over the voters who cast their ballots Sunday for Enríquez-Ominami, who said after the elections that his votes “are not endorsable.”

The candidate, who is the biological son of Miguel Enríquez, the founder of the now-defunct Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) who was killed by the Pinochet regime in 1974, when Marco was just a baby, was elected to the lower house of Congress in 2005 and quit the Socialist Party in December that year to run as an independent presidential candidate.

To win the second round, Piñera will need to draw at least one-third of the 1.38 million votes taken by Enríquez-Ominami.

Frei, meanwhile, is facing the even more difficult task of winning over nearly all of Enríquez-Ominami’s voters (and all of Arrate’s), to overcome the right-wing candidate’s 14-point advantage.

Enríquez-Ominami, whose stepfather is senator and former cabinet minister Carlos Ominami – another dissident who left the Socialist Party (PS), to which the popular outgoing President Michelle Bachelet belongs – has thus become a key protagonist on the Chilean political scene at the age of 36.

The candidate is demanding the construction of “a new progressive majority,” and says society is divided along the lines of “liberals” and “conservatives” rather than “left” and “right,” which he said is an outdated way of looking at things.

The newcomer, who says the governing coalition has outlived its two decades in power, has campaigned on a platform of “change,” and undermines Frei’s chances of giving the Concertación a fifth consecutive term.

“We welcome Marco’s supporters with open arms,” Piñera said Monday, in an attempt to draw support from voters who are disenchanted with the Concertación and backed Enríquez-Ominami instead.

Former senator Piñera of the National Renewal (RN) party that forms part of the right-wing Alliance for Chile coalition is one of the richest people in this South American country of 16.5 million.

The Harvard-educated owner of the Chilevisión TV station and of a large stake in Lan Airlines knows that his image as a free-market advocate who has sought to distance himself from Pinochet’s legacy could be attractive to many of Enríquez-Ominami’s followers.

Piñera was defeated by Bachelet in the second round of the last presidential elections, in January 2006, but has remained the strong card of the Alliance for Chile coalition, made up of the RN and the Independent Democratic Union (UDI).

Senator Frei, a 67-year-old civil engineer, is the son of former president Eduardo Frei Montalva (1964-1970), one of the founders of Chile’s Christian Democrat Party (PDC), who was slowly poisoned by agents of the dictatorship over several months, which made him too weak to survive stomach hernia surgery in 1982, according to an appeals court ruling handed down last week.

Frei junior was also president of Chile, from 1994 to 2000, becoming the second president in the transition to democracy after taking 58 percent of the vote in the first round in December 1993 as the candidate for the Concertación, which is comprised of the PDC, the PS, the Party for Democracy (PPD) and the Radical Social Democratic Party (PRSD).

The first was Patricio Aylwin, who defeated Pinochet in the December 1989 elections. The third and fourth were socialists Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006) and Bachelet (2006-2010), both of whom won in runoff elections. Lagos defeated Joaquín Lavín of the UDI and Bachelet beat Piñera, leader of the RN.

Paradoxically, while Bachelet is ending her term with more than 70 percent approval ratings, it is her party, the PS, that has been hit hardest by the crisis in the Concertación.

Both Enríquez-Ominami and Senator Alejandro Navarro, who founded the small Broad Social Movement (MAS), were dissident socialists who left the PS.

Navarro ended up throwing his support behind Enríquez-Ominami, who also attracted a diverse range of young businesspersons, former leaders of the MIR, ecologists and the small Humanist Party, among other groups.

Arrate, a former minister and ambassador of the Concertación governments, is also a former member of the PS. In his campaign he charged that the governing coalition has followed neoliberal economic policies.

After former president Lagos declined the Concertación’s presidential candidacy, the PS threw its weight behind Frei, who is widely considered uncharismatic, while both the PDC and the PPD also lost dissident parliamentarians and supporters.

Frei and other leaders of the ruling coalition pointed out Monday that the 44 percent of the vote taken by Piñera is the same proportion that Pinochet won in the 1988 presidential referendum that paved the way for the 1989 elections, and is lower than the nearly 48 percent with which Lavín forced Lagos into a runoff in January 2000.

But it is impossible to deny that Frei’s performance was the worst of any Concertación candidate since the December 1989 elections, which Aylwin won with 54 percent of the vote.

“It’s not that we want the right to win, but if the Concertación loses, it’ll be its own fault, not ours,” said Enríquez-Ominami’s political manager Max Marambio, a former bodyguard of Allende, former MIR leader and today wealthy businessman thanks to his ties with Cuba.

“We don’t know how the democratically elected right governs, because we haven’t seen that since 1958,” said María Pía Matta, the director of the Corporación de Desarrollo de la Mujer La Morada, a local women’s development association.

“The other was a coup d’etat…We don’t know how the new right will govern,” she told IPS.

Nataly Orozco, a university student who voted in downtown Santiago, told IPS that she hopes “a triumph by the right” will be worth it. “I believe that what has been done should be kept, but that many things should be improved, like education and health, because one thing that’s sure is that not everything has improved,” she said.

Sandra Aguilera, on the other hand, said Frei is what the country needs. “A lot of good things have been done, the country has been really stable and growing, it has weathered a major economic crisis without us suffering much of an impact,” she commented to IPS.

“There are things that have to be done, the new younger generations of politicians should be given more opportunities, for example, but we can do that through the Concertación,” she said.

*With additional reporting by Pamela Sepúlveda in Santiago.

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