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Is Chile heading to the right?

A rich businessman could be the country's next president.

Chilean right-wing opposition alliance presidential candidate Sebastian Pinera greets supporters after casting his vote during the presidential election in Santiago Jan. 15, 2006. (Max Montecinos/Reuters)

SANTIAGO — He is the fourth richest man in the country and number 701 on the Forbes billionaires list. He made his fortune introducing credit cards in Chile, and today his investments include soccer teams, banks, energy companies and retail. And now, Sebastian Pinera may add Chile's presidency to his resume.

The 59-year-old candidate of the right-wing National Renovation party (RN) never left the campaign trail after losing to Michelle Bachelet in the 2005 presidential race. His regular media appearances — it helps to own a television station — and trips throughout the country — a good reason to own an airline — seem to be paying off. Several polls released in April and May show Pinera leading by a large margin in the first round of voting, although by a hair in the second (if no one gains more than 50 percent of the votes in the first round, it goes to a second).

If Pinera is elected in December, it will mark a comeback of the right in Chile, at the same time as many other Latin American countries are shifting toward the left. Since the end of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship in 1990, the center-left coalition Concertacion Democratica has governed Chile without interruption.

Although Pinera and his political associates have long been aligned with the military, he says that he voted against continuing Pinochet's rule in a 1988 plebiscite. After the return of democracy, Pinera served as a senator from 1990 to 1998. His party is a partner of the ultra-right UDI under the Alliance for Chile coalition.

Although Pinera's popularity seems an oddity in this region — given the rise of leaders such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Fernando Lugo in Paraguay, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Mauricio Funes in El Salvador — Pinera's supporters deny that he would bring a rightward shift.

“Chile is moving towards moderation, not to the right," said Jose Miguel Izquierdo, director of political and electoral studies at the Freedom Institute, a think tank linked to RN. "Pinera voted ‘No’ in 1988; he promoted reforms to the labor code that legitimized the economic system; he opposed things that the right supported. His political background then places him in the center."

Rather than representing any large-scale move to the right in Chile, Pinera may be encountering an easy path because the ruling coalition is in disarray, marred by cases of government corruption and unable to fulfill longstanding expectations — and because of a lack of new, exciting leaders.

Pinera’s camp is counting on sapping votes from the Concertacion’s traditional electorate, which has been watching as the ruling coalition has splintered in recent months, with politicians moving to both the left and the right. “Pinera is more tolerable for people who have always voted for the Concertacion,” Izquierdo said.

Pinera’s main competitor is 67-year-old Eduardo Frei, of the Christian Democratic Party, who led a pro-business government when president from 1994 to 2000.