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Chile Votes for Change

Author: Shannon K. O'Neil, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Program
January 18, 2010
Forbes Online


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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