Chile runoff pits Ex-president against billionaire

AP News
Posted: Dec 14, 2009 2:01 AM

A conservative billionaire who fell shy of a first-round presidential victory can win a January runoff if he peels enough voters away from the center-left coalition that has governed Chile for nearly two decades.

Sebastian Pinera, the right's greatest hope of regaining the presidency since the 1990 departure of dictator Augusto Pinochet, won 44 percent of Sunday's vote, to 30 percent for former President Eduardo Frei, with 98 percent of the vote counted.

"We have to understand that this win doesn't belong to us," Pinera said in a victory speech to his alliance of right-wing parties. "It belongs to all Chileans, to the humble people, to the poor and the middle class, the people who most need change from their government."

Frei, meanwhile, appealed for all leftists to support him on Jan. 17, promising a prominent role for women and young people and saying he would adopt his rivals' ideas as his own, making a priority of electoral reform to include independent politicians.

"The people have told us that there are things they don't like, that things must change, and I share this mission," said Frei.

But in an ominous sign for the ruling coalition, breakaway socialist Rep. Marco Enriquez-Ominami, who finished third with 20 percent, refused to make an endorsement.

"Eduardo Frei and Sebastian Pinera are too much alike," he complained. "They don't represent hope, nor change, nor the future."

Frei, 67, has stressed experience and stability, continuing the policies of outgoing leftist President Michelle Bachelet, who has 78 percent approval ratings.

"We don't want leaps into the unknown, nor do we want to return to the past," said Frei, who was president from 1994-2000. "We don't believe that the power of the market and money should have priority over a society."

Chile's strong economy and negligible inflation are the envy of Latin America. Carefully husbanding booming copper revenues before the global economic crisis, the coalition has sharply reduced poverty and modernized the economy in the course of nearly two decades.

Pinera, a Harvard-educated economist whose $1 billion fortune includes a large share of Chile's main airline, has promised to bring his business acumen to a platform that is remarkably similar to the other candidates _ more education spending, better health care and more work to reduce poverty.

Chile's gap between rich and poor and a chronically underfunded education system have frustrated many voters. Some analysts predict a third of Enriquez-Ominami's supporters could defect to Pinera, even though his right-wing alliance once sustained Pinochet's dictatorship.

"The second round is going to be similar to the last two presidential elections _ very tight, with the only difference being that for the first time, the opposition candidate has the advantage," said Ricardo Israel, a political scientist at the University of Chile.

Rodrigo Silva, a 27-year-old computer programmer in Santiago, was among the 6 percent who voted for dissident socialist Jorge Arrate on Sunday, but he said he would go with Frei in the second round "to avoid a Pinera triumph."

Chileans also elected 120 congressmen and half of the 38 senators on Sunday.

Communists will have congressional seats for the first time since Pinochet's 1973 coup. Pinochet's grandson, Rodrigo Garcia Pinochet, lost his outsider congressional run.


Associated Press Writers Eva Vergara and Federico Quilodran contributed to this report.