In Chile, A Second Round
by Charles Lemos, Sun Dec 13, 2009 at 07:45:38 PM EST
Chileans went to the polls to elect a new a Congress and a successor to Michelle Bachelet who is constitutionally barred from a second successive term. Despite a rocky start early in tenure, Dr. Bachelet finishes strong with an approval rating of over 80%. She is at this point Latin America's most popular leader.
Since emerging from the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990, Chile has been governed by a left-wing alliance of parties - a coalition of Socialists, Radicals and Christian Democrats - called La Concertación. But now after nearly two decades in power that alliance is frayed despite the wildly popular government of Dr. Bachelet. In nominating the 67 year old Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, a former President from 1994 to 2000 and son of a former President, La Concertación seemed to signal that it had run its course.
In stepped a brash young filmmaker with limited political experience, Marco Enríquez-Ominami, known simply by his initials MEO. His father, Miguel Enriquez was a well-known singer who died in 1974 killed in a shoot out with the Chilean military. MEO grew up in Paris and only returned to Chile as a teenage near the end of the Pinochet regime. His platform was rather progressive in what is still one of Latin America's most socially conservative countries. MEO challenged the established candidates on social issues like gay marriage and abortion, issues which are taboo in Chile. It should be noted that La Concertación did not hold a national primary this year to select its candidate, as it had done in the past. That led MEO to resign from the Socialist Party to mount an independent bid, billing himself as a modern alternative to politics as usual in Chile.
The right-wing party Renovación Nacional (RN) nominated Sebastián Piñera Echenique, the loser in 2005 and a billionaire. Piñera, 60 and with a PhD from Harvard in economics, is the face of neo-liberalism a man who made his fortune the old-fashioned way - by buying state assets for pennies on the dollar. In 1970s, he bought a bank which he parlayed into a credit card firm. He now owns one of Chile's largest television networks, a quarter of the airline LAN-Chile and an interest in Colo-Colo, a football club. He campaigned on a law and order platform, promised to grow the economy by 6 percent, create a million new jobs and do to more for the middle classes accusing the Bachelet government of ignoring it.
With 98 percent of the vote counted, Piñera finished with 44 percent of the vote. Denied a first round win outright, he will now face Eduardo Frei who finished second with 30 percent. Enríquez-Ominami finished third with 20 percent, ahead of expectations. A Communist party candidate finished a distant fourth with 5 percent of the vote. The second round will be held January 17th for a five year term that starts in March 2010.
A few other observations. Only 9.2 percent of Chileans aged 18 to 30 registered to vote (voting in Chile is obligatory but only if you register with registration being for life). That number is lowest ever suggesting a deep apathy for a regime where poverty remains endemic. A huge wealth gap between rich and poor remains. Chile has a Gini coefficient of .549 only marginally improved from .571 in 2000. The country also suffers from a chronically underfunded education system which has many voters feeling more must be done to redistribute Chile's copper wealth. And this is despite Dr. Bachelet's immense efforts on behalf of the poor. Her legacy, however, is a remarkable expansion of free government-sponsored child day and early education centers across the country.
Still a World Bank study several years ago showed that the poorest 10 per cent of Chileans benefit from only 1.3 percent of government revenues, while the richest 10 per cent benefit from 40 percent.
On Sunday night, Mr. Enríquez-Ominami told his supporters that he was "just a messenger and spokesman" and that it "would be impossible to endorse your votes." For the Chilean left, the choice is stark:
"One is that it's better to let things get worse before they get better, and clean the house within the coalition parties - even if that means having to live with a conservative government for one or two political terms.
"The other is that it is a very dangerous proposition. Once you let the right-wing in, it's very hard to get them out again, and that its better to transform the coalition from within - something that hasn't really happened over the last 20 years."
Should Sebastián Piñera prevail, it will mark the first time that Chilaan right has prevailed in an election since 1958 when Jorge Alessandri Rodríguez was elected.