Is Chile heading to the right?

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.

Some minor candidates have broken off from the ruling coalition. They include Jorge Arrate, 68, a former minister under two Concertacion governments who abandoned the Socialist Party this year to forge a leftist alliance with the Communist and Humanist parties.

Others are Sen. Alejandro Navarro, who withdrew from the Socialist Party to create his own leftist movement; Sen. Adolfo Zaldivar, who was expelled from the Christian Democratic party for his dissident views; and Congressman Marco Enriquez-Ominami, still a member of the ruling Socialist Party but not abiding by its order to support Frei. Enriquez-Ominami recently surprised the political establishment with a surge in polls. Other prominent Concertacion leaders switched sides and announced their alliance with Pinera.

“This is a bad scenario for the Concertacion and it’s affecting its image, but it is too early to say if this will benefit the right,” said political scientist Carlos Huneeus, director of the public opinion firm Center of Studies of Contemporary Reality.

So far, Pinera’s campaign has tried to convince voters that, as a successful businessman, Pinera is more capable than the Concertacion of guiding Chile out of the economic crisis and creating jobs, which is by far Chileans’ main concern these days. But this tactic may not work: Recent polls show that more than 60 percent of voters support Bachelet's handling of the crisis, and Pinera's wealth and business dealings have come under unfavorable attention recently.

The son of a diplomat, Pinera spent part of his childhood in the United States and Belgium before studying economics in Chile in the late 1960s. Months before the military coup here in 1973, Pinera returned to the U.S. to get graduate degrees in economics from Harvard University. He came back to Chile in 1976, at the height of the "Chicago Boys" experimentation with free market policies here.

Pinera became politically active in the 1980s after amassing a fortune introducing Visa and MasterCard to Chileans and becoming president of the country’s first investment bank. He's devoted his life to good investments, not — as he often says — to creating jobs through entrepreneurship.

In addition to his other myriad investments, today Pinera controls three crucial companies: LAN Chile, the national airline privatized during dictatorship; Blanco y Negro, which owns one of the most popular soccer teams in the country; and the television station Chilevision.

His investments have already shaken his public image, especially after recent revelations of wrongdoings at companies where he has stocks. But there is no similar uproar about Frei, who is also a businessman.

“Pinera is right on one thing: He admits he has a lot of money, but everyone knows where he has invested it. However, no one knows where Frei’s money is,” said attorney and political scientist Ricardo Israel, director of the International Center for the Quality of Democracy.

In late April, Pinera announced that he would hand over management of his investments to four different trusteeships, with the exception of his dearest properties: the airline, television station and soccer team. Pinera pledged to sell his shares in LAN Chile by March 11, 2010, when he believes he will be assuming the presidency.

But that is no sure thing, according to Israel. “That Pinera appears leading in the polls is certainly an anomaly in the region, but there are no signs yet that he will actually win the elections,” he said.

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