A fresh face for Chilean politics

SANTIAGO — The son of a famed revolutionary leader has burst onto the electoral scene in Chile, climbing in the polls with his promise of a generational power shift.

All of which has Congressman Marco Enriquez-Ominami, 36, driving the political establishment crazy. His surge in the presidential race began just a few months ago: From April to June, he went from being the choice of 6 percent of voters polled to 23 percent, according to surveys.

Full of harsh words for what he describes as an obsolete political system, Enriquez-Ominami resigned from the ruling Socialist Party in June to run as an independent candidate for president under the slogan “Marco: Because Chile has Changed.” He is the first presidential candidate under the age of 40 since the return to democracy in 1990, and in keeping with Chile's younger generations, he's one of the few politicians open to discussing issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

“I’m not breaking away from politics, but from its conventional practices. I am breaking away from dogmas about citizen rights, about how to combat poverty, about how to exercise democracy," he told GlobalPost. In his campaign, Enriquez-Ominami is emphasizing civil rights, political reforms and education.

A philosopher and filmmaker and, now, candidate, Enriquez-Ominami is sapping votes both from the government candidate, Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei, as well as from his main rival on the right, businessman Sebastian Pinera, who is currently leading the polls.

At first, Enriquez-Ominam's entrance in the race pleased members of Pinera's staff, since Enriquez-Ominami was drawing support away from Frei. But when Pinera fell 10 points in public opinion polls, in direct proportion to Enriquez-Ominami’s rise, the right fell silent.

Both Frei, who was president from 1994 to 2000, and Pinera, who ran and lost in the 2000 elections, recently appointed young activists to help lead their campaigns, in the hopes of attracting Chile's increasingly apathetic youth.

But Enriquez-Ominami is the real thing — not a surrogate campaign staffer. Fast-moving, fast-talking and known for his intelligence, he physically resembles his father, Miguel Enriquez, who led the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR), a radical leftist organization born in the 1960s that believed in seizing power through armed struggle. Enriquez-Ominami's mother, a journalist, gave birth to Marco only three months before the military coup that ousted Socialist President Salvador Allende in 1973, ushering in 17 years of dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet.

A year after the coup, Miguel Enriquez was killed by the secret police, and Enriquez-Ominami's mother was exiled in France, where she eventually married Carlos Ominami, a former MIR member, economist and now senator who plans to resign from the Socialist Party in support of his stepson. In 2000, Marco adopted his stepfather’s last name. He likes to say that Enriquez stands for the man who gave him life and Ominami for the man who saved it. He is married to a journalist, though she is better known as a television variety show figure.

But Enriquez-Omimani, although admiring his biological father, doesn’t seem to feel the historical burden on his shoulders. “For a lot of people in Chile, Miguel is totally unfamiliar, and most young people have no idea who he was. It’s a problem with the historical memory of this country, something that hasn’t been worked on,” he said.

His politics are distinct from his father's. He hates violence, Enriquez-Ominami says, because he was a victim of it. He didn’t abandon the Socialist Party in order to foment revolutionary change, but because he wasn’t allowed to compete in his party’s primaries.

He's accused the Socialist Party of stifling discussions of controversial issues and muffling criticism. It is time, he said when announcing his candidacy in January, to put an end to “the collusion and privatization of politics and its most perverse effect: the concentration of symbolic, political and economic power in a small number of people.”

Like members of the left — the left candidate, Jorge Arrate, barely surpasses 1 percent in the polls — Enriquez-Ominami wants a new constitution, a state-owned pension fund system and a reform of the electoral and party system.

And what’s at the core of his program? “Education, education, education,” he says.

He is now trying to get 36,000 people to sign up (and pay) at a notary in support of his candidacy, as Chile's law requires independent candidates to do. The requirement is a major obstacle to independents running for office.

Meanwhile, with no party backing, Enriquez-Ominami's campaign team is pulling together a list of candidates for the congressional elections, which take place at the same time as the presidential vote. Enriquez-Ominami is warming up to former members of the ruling Concertacion Democratica coalition, and the Green and Humanist parties, the latter of which is officially allied with the Communist Party in support of Arrate. But not, it seems, for long.

“We have a left that is not showing the strength and unity that it should have. We proclaimed Arrate, but it would be good for the country to have one sole candidate from the left. Our candidate undoubtedly has had difficulties in achieving support, and the left should start looking for someone younger, fresher and renovated,” said Humanist Party President Tomas Hirsch.

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