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Piñera ends right wing’s long drought in Chile

Billionaire promised income, job growth

Supporters of Sebastián Piñera celebrated in Santiago after the Harvard-educated economist became Chile's first right-wing ruler in 52 years. Supporters of Sebastián Piñera celebrated in Santiago after the Harvard-educated economist became Chile's first right-wing ruler in 52 years. (Robert Candia/ Associated Press)
By Michael Warren
Associated Press / January 18, 2010

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SANTIAGO, Chile - Billionaire Sebastian Piñera won Chile’s presidential vote yesterday in the country’s first democratic election of a right-wing ruler in 52 years.

Piñera earned 52 percent of the votes to 48 percent for the ruling coalition’s candidate, Eduardo Frei, with 99 percent of the ballots counted, ending two decades of center-left rule since Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.

Piñera, a Harvard-educated economist, ran on a platform of creating jobs and boosting economic growth in the world’s top copper producer. He thanked his opponents and called for unity.

“We need not only a good government but a good opposition, working constructively to build a country for all of us,’’ Piñera said as he shared a stage with Frei.

Frei had warm words for Piñera but earlier credited outgoing President Michelle Bachelet and the ruling coalition for making Chile “much better than the country we received in 1990.’’

Frei, who remains a senator, vowed to be a guardian of “liberty and of all our social victories’’ while the right wing is in power.

Piñera led by a wide margin throughout the race, which tightened only after Frei and Bachelet repeatedly invoked the legacy of Pinochet, whose dictatorship was supported by the same parties that back Piñera.

But many leftists are disenchanted after two decades with the same politicians in power, and their efforts to raise fears of a retreat on human rights failed to persuade enough of them to turn out against Piñera, whose success in the voting booth is the first for Chile’s right wing since Jorge Allesandri Rodriguez won the presidency in 1958.

Bachelet and Piñera also congratulated each other in a nationally televised telephone call.

“The people have democratically elected you to be president of the republic, and I hope that Chile can continue on the path of justice and social progress that we have developed during these 20 years,’’ Bachelet told him.

Piñera responded by asking for her advice and help “to be able to continue many of the good things that have been done during your government, and of course to confront other challenges.’’

Piñera focused his campaign on hopes for change, promising to create a million jobs and double Chile’s per-capita annual income of $12,000 by expanding growth to 6 percent a year.

Frei and Piñera agreed on most issues, a reflection of the remarkable economic, social, and political success that has given Bachelet nearly 80 percent approval ratings. Analysts predicted Piñera would make no radical moves to shake up this consensus.

The biggest change may be in foreign affairs.

Bachelet tried to defuse tensions with Chile’s neighbors, putting Bolivia’s long-held desire for access to the sea on their bilateral agenda and avoiding direct criticism of President Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez.

But Piñera, a friend of Colombia’s conservative president, Alvaro Uribe, has been more outspoken, criticizing populism as a failed approach and saying Venezuela “is not a democracy as it is.’’ He also vowed never to concede any of Chile’s coast to Bolivia.

With Congress evenly divided, Piñera will need leftists to get anything done, and for the first time since Pinochet’s 1973 coup, this includes several Communist Party lawmakers whose votes could become key tiebreakers.

Piñera put his doctorate in philosophy in economics from Harvard to use, popularizing credit cards in Chile, growing a fortune that includes a large share of Chile’s main airline, a leading television channel, and the country’s most popular soccer team.

At 60, he still enjoys risky sports, from paragliding to scuba-diving, rafting, and piloting his helicopter. Often on the move and with natural good humor, he laughs off nervous tics that include shrugging his shoulders, pressing his lips, and rocking his head from side to side, once confessing that he buys clothes two sizes too big to feel more comfortable.

This was his second run for the presidency. He lost by nearly 7 points to Bachelet in 2006 and has remained in permanent campaign mode since then, promising “change, future, and hope’’ for all Chileans.