Chile braces for tight presidential election

The centre-left alliance that has ruled Chile since the restoration of democracy in 1990 faces the possible loss of power going into Sunday’s first-round presidential election. The Concertacion, a coalition of Socialists and Christian- Democrats with two smaller parties, is facing a second-place finish and an uncertain fate in a potential run-off, despite the huge popularity of outgoing President Michelle Bachelet.

The coalition has become synonymous with power in the two decades since the end of the 1973-90 military dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet.

Now fielding the lacklustre Senator Eduardo Frei, a former president from 1994-2000, Concertacion heads to the polls divided – for the first time in its history – by the independent candidacy of one of its own, the young, charismatic Marco Enriquez-Ominami.

The conservative camp is fielding multimillionaire Sebastian Pinera, 60, widely regarded as a strong candidate.

Sometimes derided as the Chilean Berlusconi, he owns a television channel among his holdings and ranks among the world’s 700 richest people. Critics have accused Pinera of seeking to mix business and politics.

Pre-election surveys peg Pinera’s support at 35-40 per cent, which would give him a solid lead in the first-round vote. But winning the presidency with an absolute majority looks out of reach, setting up a likely run-off with Frei, 67, who is drawing support of 25-30 per cent.

Enriquez-Ominani, 36, was polling around 20 per cent, according to opinion surveys, followed by communist candidate Jorge Arrate, 68, at 10 per cent.

None of the candidates can match Bachelet’s popularity.

The first Chilean woman ever to hold the presidency has an approval rating of almost 80 per cent as she approaches the end of her four-year mandate. Chilean law forbids immediate re-election, but observers think Bachelet will target a return in 2014.

In the face of the right’s chances of winning power, Arrate proposed an alliance with the Concertacion and Enriquez-Ominami, but the latter refused. When Frei failed to respond at all, Arrate compared him to a moai, the famous, mysterious stone heads on Chile’s Easter Island.

However, reports persist of secret negotiations for the three candidates to form a broad centre-left alliance ahead of the expected run-off.

The campaign has lacked dramatic differentiation on economic and foreign policy, with the main candidates promising to fight inequality, improve access to education, create new jobs and strive for better relations with neighbouring Bolivia and Peru.

Differences widen over Chile’s difficult history, particularly the issue of punishment for military and police officers implicated in human-rights abuses during the Pinochet dictatorship. Another bone of contention has been reform of the constitution, a Pinochet-era relic.

Pinera opposes both human-rights prosecutions and constitutional changes.

Unless one candidate wins a majority on Sunday, the top two finishers will contest a second round on January 17, followed by the inauguration of a new president for a four-year term on March 11.


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