THE OLD saying that oppositions don’t win elections, ruling parties lose them, is only part of the story in the generational shift that shook Chile yesterday. In essence voters appear to have said “we like the policies but want a change at the helm” in a presidential election that was marked largely by economic consensus and talk of continuity, though reviving memories of the years of dictatorship. The election saw the right returned to power for the first time since Gen Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-90 regime ended, and its first electoral victory since Jorge Allesandri Rodriguez won the presidency in 1958. It represents a significant hiccup in the continent’s drift to the left over the last ten years.
Chile’s politics are much more European than typical of a region where electoral turnarounds are more usually marked by seismic shifts in policy. The success of billionaire and former senator Sebastián Piñera (picture above) against lacklustre ex-president Eduardo Frei reflected primarily a belief that the centre-left coalition, in power for 20 years and which presided over last year’s first economic decline in a decade, is tired and has lost momentum. But outgoing president Michelle Bachelet, constitutionally debarred from a second term, still retains 80 per cent approval ratings in the polls. Mr Piñera’s first act was to pay tribute to the success of policies which have made Chile South America’s richest economy.
The election inevitably reopened old wounds from the Pinochet days, when some 3,000 opponents of the regime died or were “disappeared” at its hands, but the electoral toxicity of association with the ancient regime has begun clearly to dissipate among younger voters. Mr Piñera has promised not to appoint former ministers from that era but may still face difficulties with his stated aim to rehire former officials who have not been charged with offences.
The new president, who has interests in the national airline and, like Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, in both a major TV station and the country’s most popular football team, won just 52 per cent of Sunday’s run-off vote, and will have to govern with cross-party support in a closely divided parliament. He has promised to create a million jobs and boost economic growth to an average 6 per cent a year. Critics worry his plan depends too heavily on the private sector and on a steady global recovery maintaining copper demand. His plans to nationalise part of the state giant Codelco, the world’s top copper miner, could also prove too much for what is currently a largely quiet but powerful labour movement.
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