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Billionaire gains runoff in Chile

Leftists must unify if they hope to deny Pinera

By Michael Warren
Associated Press / December 14, 2009

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SANTIAGO - Right-wing billionaire Sebastian Pinera beat three leftists in yesterday’s election but failed to obtain a majority, setting up a runoff against a veteran of the coalition that has ruled Chile for two decades of democracy.

With 60 percent of the vote counted, Pinera had 44 percent to 30 percent for the ruling center-left coalition’s candidate, former President Eduardo Frei.

Representative Marco Enriquez-Ominami, a Socialist who broke away from the ruling coalition in a dispute with Frei, had 19 percent, and Jorge Arrate, representing an outsider coalition led by Communists, had 6 percent, according to nationwide results.

The trend was expected to roughly hold through yesterday’s vote count, putting Pinera and Frei in a Jan. 17 runoff election where the key question will be whether leftists can unify to fend off the most moderate candidate Chile’s right has ever had.

A runoff win by Pinera, 60, would give Chile its first right wing government since the end of its dictatorship and would mark a tilt to the right in a region where leftists have won most recent elections.

The government’s general secretary, Jose Antonio Viera-Gallo, immediately called on supporters of the other leftist candidates to come together, saying that the vote makes it clear that the people want Frei in the second round.

Stability and experience are selling points for Frei, 67, who governed Chile from 1994 to 2000.

“We don’t want leaps into the unknown, nor do we want to return to the past. We want a government that worries about the people,’’ he said after voting. “We don’t believe that the power of the market and money should have priority over a society.’’

But many voters are fed up with having the same government throughout 19 years of democracy following General Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-1990 dictatorship. Promising change, Pinera and Enriquez-Ominami challenged the ruling center-left coalition like never before.

President Michelle Bachelet has 78 percent approval ratings and Chile seems on track to become a first-world nation.

Chile’s economy, negligible inflation, and stable democracy are the envy of Latin America. Booming copper revenues and prudent fiscal policies have helped the government reduce poverty from 45 percent in 1990 to 13 percent, raising per capita annual income to $14,000 in the nation of 17 million.

But a huge wealth gap between rich and poor and a chronically underfunded education system have many voters feeling more must be done to redistribute Chile’s copper wealth. A study by the World Bank several years ago showed that the poorest 10 percent of Chileans benefit from only 1.3 percent of government revenues, while the richest 10 percent benefit from 40 percent.

Pinera, a Harvard-educated economist, is ranked No. 701 with $1 billion on the Forbes magazine world’s richest list. He built his fortune bringing credit cards to Chile, and his investments include Chile’s main airline, most popular football team, and a leading TV channel.

He has promised to bring the same entrepreneurial spirit to governing Chile, and expressed optimism after voting, saying “better times are coming.’’

Whether the left unites to beat Pinera in January depends largely on Enriquez-Ominami, a renegade Socialist who broke with Concertacion because the coalition’s rules favored Frei.

Asked if he would accept a deal to support Frei against Pinera, he rejected the idea as “typical of the old politics.’’

“When it’s not convenient for them, there’s no deal. And when it is convenient, they desperately try until the last minute to offer political appointments in exchange for support,’’ said Enriquez-Ominami, a documentary filmmaker and congressman who was raised in Parisian exile after Pinochet’s military killed his Communist rebel father.

Analysts say Enriquez-Ominami’s backers will come around and support Frei rather than enable a victory by Pinera’s alliance of right-wing parties that once supported Pinochet.

Chileans also elected 120 representatives and half of the 38 senators yesterday.

Communists will have congressional seats for the first time since Pinochet’s 1973 coup. Representative Isabel Allende, a Socialist and daughter of ousted President Salvador Allende, was voted into the Senate. But Pinochet’s grandson, Rodrigo Garcia Pinochet, lost his run for a congressional seat representing the upscale suburb of Las Condes.