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Chile's elections: “Who gets the gay vote?”

Gay men are holding hands and lesbians are kissing on prime-time TV, as candidates try to win over the gay vote.

Residents participate in a Gay Pride Parade in Santiago, Sept. 29, 2007. (Victor Ruiz Caballero/Reuters)

SANTIAGO, Chile — It’s unheard of: Gay men holding hands and lesbians kissing each other on prime-time television, brought to you by conservative and Catholic presidential candidates.

Welcome to “Who gets the gay vote?” in the Chilean elections. If the generally accepted belief that 10 percent of the overall population is gay is true, winning those voters over is a matter of political life or death.

The Dec. 13 general elections will not decide who will be the next president of Chile, but they will determine who goes on to the second round in January. As it stands now, only one thing is clear: right-wing billionaire Sebastian Pinera will be on the ballot both times.

His final opponent will be either Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei, of the governing Concertacion coalition, or Marco Enriquez-Ominami, who pulled out of that coalition earlier this year to run as independent.

Now they are all scrambling to appeal to voters, and gay rights have become a central feature of their campaigning. But the gay community is still wondering whether this is all for show or whether it portends real advances in a country where sodomy among adults was penalized with jail time until just 10 years ago.

Pinera wasn’t the first candidate — in fact, he was the last — to support the idea of legalizing the rights of gay couples to inheritance, patrimony and health and social security benefits. But he made the news because of where he comes from: a conservative coalition with leaders linked to the Opus Dei that has consistently opposed women’s sexual and reproductive rights, divorce and sex education in schools. Gay rights weren’t even part of its vocabulary.

Then a couple of weeks ago, Pinera’s television spots began showing a gay couple holding hands, with the candidate speaking on their behalf: “Today, people accept us,” he says. “Now we need a country that respects us.”

Chilean electoral laws provide free daily five-minute television spots for each presidential candidate during the 30 days prior to the elections.

Frei included in one of his a lesbian couple kissing, after which one of the women says: “We deserve the same rights as everyone.” Days later, he began including a transvestite sweeping the hairdresser’s where he worked, saying: “Integration and more understanding.”

Enriquez-Ominami and leftist candidate Jorge Arrate haven’t gone out of their way to publicly support gay rights because it has always been part of their agendas. As a congressman, Enriquez-Ominami sponsored a bill on gay marriages last year.

The Movement for Homosexual Integration and Liberation (MOVILH) called the TV spots a milestone in the history of presidential elections in Chile.