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Chile Votes for Change

Author: Shannon K. O'Neil, Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies
January 18, 2010
Forbes Online

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Despite the calm, Chile's presidential election Sunday was one of the transformative political moments in Latin America in recent years. This transformation did not entail street demonstrations, a new constitution or the introduction of 21st-century socialism--yet it was no less radical. Chile has transitioned toward a more pluralistic democracy and away from two decades of electoral dominance by the Concertación--a coalition of mostly Socialists, Radicals and Christian Democrats forged in opposition to the Pinochet military government (1973-1989).

Right-leaning Alianza candidate Sebastián Piñera won the first-round December vote, outpacing Concertación candidate Eduardo Frei by nearly 15 percentage points. Sunday, by a closer margin, Piñera pulled another victory, making him the first elected conservative Chilean leader in several decades.

This was not an election driven by issues or ideology: Both candidates promised to continue Chile's market-friendly macroeconomic policies and its popular social welfare programs. Instead it was driven by personal stories. Piñera presented himself as an entrepreneur who would foster greater innovation and competitiveness; Frei as a wise, experienced former president (he led the country from 1994 to 2000).

Piñera's victory suggests a new era for Chile's politics. It signifies that the right has finally emerged from the shadow of Pinochet's military dictatorship to become a viable electoral alternative once more, able to lead an open and dynamic country without a fear of backsliding into the past. It is the end of the pro/anti Pinochet political divide--the guiding cleavage of Chile's politics since the 1970s.

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