Chile set for runoff vote, conservative wins first round

A conservative billionaire Pinera won the first round of an election in Chile Sunday in the race to succeed outgoing leftist President Michelle Bachelet.

Chile set for runoff vote, conservative wins first round

A conservative billionaire, Sebastian Pinera, won the first round of an election in Chile Sunday in the race to succeed outgoing leftist President Michelle Bachelet.

Pinera, a Harvard-educated businessman, won 44 percent of the votes against 29.6 percent for ruling coalition candidate ex-President Eduardo Frei, an official vote count of 98 percent of polling stations showed.

Pinera and Frei now go to a second election on Jan. 17 since no one in the four-way race took more than 50 percent. They lost no time in seeking to woo the votes of maverick independent Marco Enriquez-Ominami, who split the left and missed the run-off by finishing third with 20 percent of the vote.

Pinera, 60, is the first candidate to break a voter stigma against rightists after the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, when about 3,000 leftists and dissidents were killed and thousands more were tortured.

Sunday's presidential vote was the first since Pinochet died in 2006, and the youngest voters were born after the dictatorship ended.

A Pinera victory would also mark a shift to the right in a region dominated by leftist leaders but he is not expected to change economic policies that have made Chile a model of stability.

"This is a triumph for change, for the future and for hope," Pinera told jubilant supporters on Sunday evening. "We share Marco's and his supporters' diagnosis that the Concertacion (ruling coalition) is worn out."

Pinera, a 60-year-old extreme sports enthusiast who piloted his own helicopter to remote settlements during the campaign, plans to use corporate tax breaks and job subsidies to lure investment if elected.

He has promised to boost average annual economic growth to 6 percent and create 1 million jobs.

Frei called on Enriquez-Ominami's supporters to back him but the 36-year-old son of guerrilla leader slain under Pinochet, who defected from the ruling coalition, said he would not endorse any candidate in the run-off, which could weigh on Frei's chances.

The political right has not won an election for 50 years in Chile, a copper-, fruit- and salmon-exporting country of 16 million that stretches from a mine-rich desert in the north to the icy tip of South America.

Pinochet seized power in a 1973 coup and more than 3,000 people were killed or disappeared during his 17-year rule.

"Leftist coalition"

The leftist coalition that has run the country since Pinochet stepped down in 1990 has been credited with developing the region's highest standard of living but it has been weakened in recent years by infighting and defections.

Many voters believe the left has not done enough to distribute billions of dollars in copper earnings through social programs and improve education and healthcare.

"After 20 years I have stopped believing in the Concertacion," 33-year-old software designer Karla Espinoza said, referring to the ruling coalition of center-left parties, as she voted for Pinera at his boyhood school, Verbo Divino, in Santiago. She voted for President Michelle Bachelet, not Pinera, at the last election in 2005.

Pinera's critics say he wants to run Chile like a money-hungry business boss and that his immense wealth and stakes in businesses such as LAN, one of Latin America's biggest airlines, raise conflicts of interest.

They also question his ethics. Pinera was fined about $700,000 in 2007, accused of abusing privileged information when he bought LAN shares a day before it published earnings.

Frei, 67, whose 1994-2000 presidency was rocked by a recession amid the Asian financial crisis, has pledged to continue the social programs of Bachelet, who is very popular.

Enriquez-Ominami has called both Frei and Pinera "dinosaurs" who are stuck in the past and have kidnapped democracy.

"Small majority"

Fourth-place candidate Jorge Arrate of a leftist bloc that includes Chile's Communist Party polled 6.2 percent of the vote and has pledged to back Frei in the second round.

"The big question is: What happens to Marco Enriquez-Ominami's votes?" said Fabian Pressacco, a political analyst who expects a tight race. "How many of those votes will go to Frei? I think most of them will."

Bachelet, who could not run for a second consecutive term under Chile's constitution, has an impressive 77 percent approval rating but Frei has failed to capitalize on that.

Pinera, who came second at the presidential election in 2005, has long sought to distance himself from Pinochet's legacy, although some of his advisers worked for the dictator.

The left is expected to retain a small majority in both houses of Congress, meaning Pinera would have to negotiate with rivals to push through legislation.



Reuters

Last Mod: 14 Aralık 2009, 15:43
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