Billionaire wins Chile election

On Sunday, January 17th, Sebastian Pinera defeated Eduardo Frei, the candidate of the governing coalition (Concertacion), becoming the first candidate from the right wing to win Chile’s presidency since 1958.

Although Pinera campaigned as a moderate, his coalition (Alliance for Chile) includes former supporters of the Pinochet dictatorship — the National Renewal Party and the very conservative Independent Democratic Union. The majority of Pinera’s members of Parliament come from the IDU, two of his top campaign advisers held posts in the dictatorship and a third is a former Pinochet minister.

Pinera is a billionaire – the 3rd wealthiest person in Chile – and is principal shareholder in LAN airlines and owner of Chilevision television. His investments also include stakes in Chile’s national champion soccer team and an upscale Santiago hospital. Already concerns have been voiced about conflicts of interest, and he will clearly be a pro-big business president.

The election is being hailed by some as a shift to the right – and clearly the policies of the Pinera government will represent that. At a news conference called by leaders of the Juntos Podemos Mas coalition, Guillermo Teillier, one of the newly elected Communist members of Parliament, said, “This is indisputably bad news for Chile and for Latin America…and will not bring more democracy, equality, or social justice.”

However, even a cursory look reveals that Pinera’s victory was not due to a rightward shift in Chileans’ politics – starting with the fact that in the first round, the three center-left candidates’ combined vote totaled 56%, and the outgoing president, socialist Michelle Bachelet has an 80% approval rating.

So what did happen?

First, Pinera campaigned as a moderate, and pledged to expand the Concertacion’s health-care and jobs programs for the middle class and poor. He also vowed to help small businesses and boost investment in state-owned Codelco, the world’s largest copper producer. He has pledged to respect human rights and disavows any support for the anti-democratic legacy of the Pinochet years.

Two, the widespread dissatisfaction with the Concertacion was at least partly due to its pro-corporate, privatization (neoliberal) growth model. The deal that was worked out in the transition from the dictatorship explicitly excluded the left and relied on powersharing with the right. Despite being one of the wealthier countries of Latin America, Chile has the widest gulf between rich and poor, which has sharpened given the private control of water, pensions, unemployment compensation, health care and education.

Numerous corruption scandals in the government and concerns about crime were also big issues for voters.

Another obvious factor that allowed Pinera to win was that the opposition was split, and included a new and unknown quantity in the candidacy of Marco Enriquez Ominami, who campaigned as an independent alternative to the traditional left, and appealed to younger voters.

During the run-off campaign, Ominami was slow to support Frei, and when he finally did so, he asked his supporters to vote for “the one who was president before,” and only referred to Frei by name when talking about candidates “of the past,” in which category he included Pinera.

Finally, Chile’s electoral system was rigged during the dictatorship to favor the right. Election districts were wildly gerrymandered to protect right-wing representation, and the system was set up to prevent participation by small party candidates, and those aligned with social movements. And over the 20 years of the Concertacion’s rule, alienation from politics, especially electoral politics, had grown.

The victory in the first round election (December 13) of three leading Communists, who did an end run around the restrictive electoral system by putting forward a combined list with Concertacion candidates in a number of Congressional districts, goes against the notion of a shift to the right.

In the initial news conference press statement, Teiller declared that their focus will be the 12 point program put forth by the left and accepted by Frei during the campaign, which calls for a new Constitution, the nationalization of water, greater attention to and resources for health care and education, halting privatization, increasing labor and democratic rights, including for Chile’s indigenous peoples, and the protection and retention of the profits from Chile’s resources and especially its copper industry.

“The main thing,” said Teiller, “will be to continue to fight for workers’ rights.”

Another major concern is the “truth and justice process,” which includes allowing the many cases involving Pinochet-era human rights abuses still in the court system to be resolved.

Teiller underscored the importance of the December election results, calling these “partial victories in the struggle against exclusion,” and which will allow it to “continue to struggle against exclusion and for democratic reforms, now both from within the Parliament as well as through the mobilization of the people.”