Chilean right-wing candidate favored for president

AP News
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Posted: Dec 10, 2009 2:14 AM

Sebastian Pinera, a billionaire with investments in Chile's main airline, most popular football team and a leading TV channel, heads into Sunday's presidential election with a good chance of returning the right wing to power for the first time since democracy was restored 19 years ago.

Opinion polls put Pinera far ahead of Eduardo Frei, a former president who represents the fraying center-left coalition that has governed Chile since Gen. Augusto Pinochet ended his dictatorship. A victory by Pinera would mark a tilt to the right in a region dominated by leftist governments.

The 60-year-old businessman is expected to keep the fiscally prudent policies of the ruling coalition as he focuses on fighting corruption and bringing new faces to government.

Outgoing President Michelle Bachelet has sky-high 78 percent approval ratings, but the left couldn't agree on fewer than three candidates, none of whom have close to her popularity. Pinera also has made a point of appealing to centrists.

"Pinera is the most moderate candidate that the right has ever had," said Patricio Navia, a Chilean political analyst who teaches at New York University.

The elections are unlikely to produce radical changes in Chile, an economically stable copper producer, Navia said. "The big surprise of this election is that all the candidates are proposing very similar policies."

Pinera lost to Bachelet in 2006, but has topped all polls since beginning his third campaign for president last year. The latest survey, published Wednesday, had him falling short of a first-round victory, with 44 percent of the votes to 31 percent for Frei.

Marco Enriquez-Ominami, a congressman who broke with the socialists after realizing that primary rules favored Frei, would get 18 percent and leftist Jorge Arrate would get 7 percent, according to the poll by the Center for the Study of Contemporary Reality. The poll had an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Despite those numbers, trends suggest a first-round win for Pinera can't be ruled out, center director Carlos Huneeus said, concluding that "the right is in a better position than ever" to reach the presidency.

It remains to be seen whether Chile's leftist coalition could regroup ahead of a second-round vote Jan. 17, but polls indicate Pinera would win then as well _ with 49 percent to 32 percent against Frei, and a slightly tighter margin of 47 percent to 35 percent against Enriquez-Ominami. The center polled 1,200 people nationwide between Nov. 24 and Dec. 5.

"We are going to win by a wide margin," Pinera predicted as he prepared for a campaign-closing rally in the capital Thursday. The other three candidates planned to close their campaigns elsewhere in Chile.

Arrate proposed last month that the three leftists form a common front to defeat Pinera in the second round, but the others were cool to the idea.

Chile has never elected a billionaire before.

While the extent of his wealth has not been made public, Forbes magazine ranks Pinera at No. 701 on its world's richest list, with $1 billion. And while he has put some $500 million in Chilean investments in blind trusts, he still has many more investments outside the country.

Pinera is running for the Alliance for Change, comprised of the far-right Independent Democratic Union and the right-wing National Renovation party, which together provided a sheen of democracy for Pinochet during the final decade of his 1973-90 military dictatorship.

Pinera is atypical for Chile's right because he voted in 1988 to end Pinochet's dictatorship _ a fact he often recalls on the campaign trail. But he has been widely supported by the military during his eight years as a senator, and a secret meeting he held with 1,000 retired military figures generated controversy.

According to one of the group's directors, he promised to end the "never-ending trials" over dictatorship-era crimes. Pinera later denied making any promises of amnesty for about 750 military figures being processed for human rights violations.

The hyperkinetic Pinera has campaigned the length of Chile multiple times, making ambitious proposals like restoring the flow of a polluted river in the capital, turning it into something like the Seine in Paris. He even bought a huge park in extreme southern Chile to protect a birthing area for endangered blue whales.

He still enjoys risky sports _ hang gliding, scuba diving, rafting, piloting helicopters _ but has learned to speak slowly enough that people no longer call him "The Locomotive."

Pinera helped bring credit cards to Chile, the start of his fortune in the 1980s. His many investments have grown to include 26 percent of Chile's principal airline, LAN Airlines SA, 100 percent of the Chilevision TV channel and 14 percent of the most popular football team, Colo Colo.

He earned a doctorate in economics at Harvard University and says his riches came through his own effort. His father was an ambassador who raised his family in the U.S. and Europe, but Pinera says he inherited only a good education and an envelope full of gas and electricity bills.

Mixing money and politics have brought him costly headaches.

In 2007, he had to pay a $730,000 fine for buying LAN stock at a time when he had advance knowledge of the financial results. With his eye on the presidency, Pinera preferred paying the fine to fighting it.

Then last January, LAN's cargo subsidiary agreed to pay an $88 million fine to the U.S. Justice Department for conspiring with other airlines to eliminate competition and fix prices on shipments to and from the U.S.

Seeking to stem criticism, Pinera in April put his Chilean investments in dozens of companies into four blind trusts. But he held onto his stock in LAN, Chilevision and the football team as well as some foreign investments.

Pinera has said that if he becomes president he'll sell his LAN investments but keep the football team and TV channel.