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Right-winger wins first round of presidential elections

(Sebastian Pinera and his wife after a victory speech in downtown Santiago. Photo: Courtesy of the Pinera campaign)

After winning 44 percent of the votes in this Sunday’s elections, right-wing billionaire Sebastian Pinera is poised to become Chile’s next president, but will have to compete with the government candidate, Eduardo Frei, in a runoff election on Jan. 17.

With over 98 percent of the votes counted, Pinera was leading with 44 percent, followed by Frei (29.6 percent), independent Marco Enriquez-Ominami (20.1 percent) and leftist Jorge Arrate (6.2 percent).

If Pinera confirms his victory in January, it will be the first time since the late 1950s that Chileans will have voted the right into power and the country will return to right-wing leadership since the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship in 1990.

But it won’t be easy for either side.

Frei will most likely count with the votes of many of Arrate’s supporters and many more from Enriquez-Ominami, or MEO, for the runoff election next month. Speaking to supporters last night, Frei called on both camps to endorse their votes to his candidacy as a way to prevent Chile from turning right.

In recent weeks, Arrate had made public calls to Frei and MEO to agree to endorse their votes to whoever made it to the ballot in January to defeat Pinera. Arrate insinuated that calling on his supporters to vote for Frei would depend on how the Communist party candidates to Congress fared.

The Concertacion coalition struck an agreement with the Communist party earlier this year that consisted in that the Concertacion would forfeit one of its candidates on the ballot for Congress in favor of a Communist party candidate. The deal, clearly supported by President Michelle Bachelet, hoped to break the exclusion of the left from political office. Chile's disproportional electoral system doesn't allow minority parties representation in Congress.

And they fared well: For the first time since 1973, three members of the Communist party will be sitting in the lower house of Congress as of March.

Things aren't so certain with MEO followers. In a speech last night, the independent candidate said he wasn’t the owner of his votes and called on his supporters to vote freely in January. Visibly disappointed, MEO nevertheless stated that his candidacy had changed Chile, and indeed, it has.

Enriquez-Ominami was until mid-year a member of President Bachelet’s Socialist party, but broke off from the government coalition to run for president as independent when he wasn't allowed to compete in the Concertacion primaries.

The mere fact that a young, independent candidate could attract 20 percent of the votes has broken the duopoly of power that has gripped Chilean politics since the end of dictatorship in 1990. It reveals an electorate avid for more alternatives and one willing to take a chance and go beyond the traditional political establishment to seek something new.

To this Pinera appealed during a victory speech last night. In a clear message for MEO supporters to vote for him next month, Pinera said: “I share with Marco and all those who supported him, his diagnosis that the Concertacion is exhausted, with material fatigue, often tainted by incompetence and corruption, lacking ideas, enthusiasm and proposals, and captured by its political operators and party leaderships. I also share with Marco and his supporters the firm desire and will for change.”

Speaking before thousands outside a downtown hotel, Pinera outlined the thrust of his eventual government: one million new jobs, a crackdown on crime and drug trafficking, expanding Bachelet’s social protection network to the middle class, improving health and education, and combating government corruption and incompetence.

Pinera also appeased his more conservative allies in the UDI party by explicitly calling for protecting the unborn, and reiterated his call to respect and protect the rights of minorities.

Pinera announced that his triumph marks the beginning of a new transition. He may be right: The seemingly never-ending transition from dictatorship to democracy seems to give way to a new political scenario, one of shifting political allegiances and a new round of faces in government.