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Chile swings right in presidential election

With over 99 percent of the votes counted in this Sunday's presidential election, right-wing billionaire Sebastian Pinera has won with almost 51.6 percent, while Eduardo Frei, candidate of the government coalition, trailed behind with 48.8 percent.

Celebrations have broken out in the wealthier east side of Santiago, with thousands of cars converging in Plaza Italia and hundreds of supporters flocking to a downtown hotel that served today as Pinera's campaign headquarters to celebrate on the streets the first rightist to make it to the presidential palace since the end of dictatorship in 1990.

Earlier in the evening and with 60 percent of the votes counted, Frei had already acknowledged defeat, calling on “liberals and progressives” to unite to continue to fight for freedom and social justice. In a message read to supporters in his campaign headquarters, Frei was flanked by former presidents of the government coalition, the Concertacion, a symbolic image that seems to mark the definitive end of a transition to democracy that has already lasted 20 years.

President Michelle Bachelet congratulated Pinera on the phone, and both agreed to have breakfast on Monday to discuss the future. In a televised phone conversation, Pinera told Bachelet he wanted her “advice and help.”

The Concertacion is being pushed out of government for the first time since the return to civilian rule in 1990. And it's the first time since 1958 that Chileans elect a right-wing candidate into office. Chile’s other experience with the right in power was during the dictatorship of general Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), who took over through a military coup, not democratic elections.

Businessman and former senator Pinera, although member of the right-wing groups that flourished under the protective umbrella of dictatorship and part of the business elite that thrived with its liberal economic policies, has tried to distance himself from that past. During the campaign, he promised he would not include any former Pinochet cronies in his cabinet.

His main message was change. Many questioned that he was promising change just for the sake of change, after two decades of relatively successful Concertacion governments that are coming to an end as the country becomes the newest member of the OECD.

But for people on the street, the message hit home. Corruption, unfulfilled promises and a rotation of the same old politicians undermined the Concertacion governments and caused inevitable exhaustion among the electorate.

Except among Pinera supporters, no one was terribly excited about this election. Voting for Frei became for many a lesser evil to ward off a right-wing president. No one I have interviewed or heard over the past few weeks since the first round of the elections on Dec. 13 has ever said they are voting for Frei because they really believed in him or liked him. It was like taking bad medicine.

Frei's campaign was bland and many criticized the fact that he has promised things he never tried to do when he was president between 1994-2000. His government was then perceived to be pro-business, conservative and his credentials on human rights were not good: When Pinochet was arrested in London in 1998 due to an arrest warrant issued by a Spanish court, Frei immediately started seeking his release, and achieved it a year and a half later.

President Michelle Bachelet's outstanding popularity — 81 percent, according to the most recent poll — did not even touch Frei. Some voters I spoke with said they would have voted for Bachelet if she could run for a second term, but they wouldn't do so for Frei.

Abstention was very high — 42 percent — although this has been a growing trend for many years now. But a visit to polls this afternoon when the vote count was beginning was even more telling. The largest voting place in Santiago, the National Stadium, was void of the usually rowdy groups that stay around after the polls close to participate in the vote count, cheering for one candidate or another. Everyone had already gone home.

Dispatches on the Chilean elections:

Chile’s Elections: A guide

Chile’s Elections: Who gets the gay vote?

A fresh face for Chilean politics

Is Chile heading to the right?