Chile held the presidential runoff election on January 17, 2010 to elect a new President to succeed term-limited President Michelle Bachelet. The runoff opposed right-wing billionaire Sebastián Piñera against former President Eduardo Frei, who represented the incumbent centre-left coalition. Piñera led Frei by a large margin in the first round, likely due to the 20% showing of left-wing independent Marco Enríquez-Ominami and the respectable 6% showing of Communist candidate Jorge Arrate. I said following the first round that the runoff would tighten significantly, and that it wasn’t a slam dunk for Piñera like the first round was. Frei managed to gain the endorsement of Marco Enríquez-Ominami and significantly closed the gap with Piñera. In the end, Piñera won, as expected, but it was not an acclamation.
Sebastián Piñera (RN-CPC) 51.61%
Eduardo Frei (PDC-CPD) 48.39%
Frei did best in Chile’s mining centre, in the Atacama and the surroundings, and also in other important industrial or copper-mining areas south of Santiago. It is quite interesting how Frei’s support has become concentrated mostly in those mining and working-class areas. Piñera won the non-industrial areas, such as Santiago, which the left had won in 2006. In the realm of results in interesting places, the 50 Chilean scientists in Antarctica continue to prefer the right – it voted for Piñera in 2006 already – giving Piñera 78% of the vote. In the commune of Chaitén, destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 2006 or so, 2900 or so people voted and Piñera won 75%. Finally, Piñera won 60% on Easter Island.
Piñera’s victory represents the first right-wing President of Chile since Pinochet, who fell in 1989. It is also the first electoral victory of the right since 1958 (although in 1964 the traditional right supported the winning candidacy of Eduardo Frei Montalva – a Christian Democrat). It’s significant when dealing with stuff like ‘historical dates’ and so forth, and it could be interpreted as the end of Pinochet’s influence over Chilean politics. The centre-left Concertación (an alliance of parties opposed to Pinochet in 1988) has held power since 1989.
What, however, has caused the victory of the right? It’s not a widespread discontent with Bachelet – she leaves office with a glorious record and 80%+ approval ratings. It’s not entirely dissatisfaction with the Concertación: it still polled 44% in the parliamentary elections last December and it didn’t take a trouncing either way. Piñera’s ability to give the Chilean right a more centrist and pragmatic image has given him and his alliance a boost. It is significant in a country where the right was associated with the Pinochet dictatorship until very recently. His economic policies have been far from ultra-liberalism, and he’s praised some of the left’s policy. In fact, his main campaign theme was law and order and other non-economic issues. Piñera’s charismatic style helped him, especially in contrast to an old and uncharismatic Frei. Lastly, voters, while not rejecting the Concertación in a landslide, are unhappy with the Concertación’s “old ways” and the success of Enríquez-Ominami in the first round showed this.
That being said, Piñera doesn’t have a majority in either chamber and will need to rely, probably, on a bunch of independents and regional independents in both chambers. As a result of this parliamentary situation but also because he has proposed little radical change, his policies won’t be that huge of a change from the left. Chile’s pragmatic governance is likely to continue under a new face.