In the second round of Chile's presidential election this past January 17, billionaire investor Sebastián Piñera, candidate of a conservative coalition called Alliance for Chile, successfully put an end to the 20-year rule of the center-left coalition, Concertación. Piñera, a who owns a stake in LAN Chile, the country's major airline, a popular soccer team and the Chilevisión television network, won 51.6 percent of the vote, defeating his opponent Eduardo Frei of the Christian Democrat party who came away with 48.4 percent.
"To have a strong nation you need more than just one ruling party, but also a good opponent," Piñera told a cheering crowd with Frei present at the hotel Crowne Plaza in Santiago not long after the results came in. "I want to tell Frei, that now more than ever we need a country united."
Since the 1988 plebiscite that marked the end of the violent military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, the center-left Concertación has consistently won the presidential elections in Chile. Many credit these victories to the fears of Chilean voters that the right has never foresworn its allegiance to the apparatus of the old dictatorship. A middle-class tailor in Valparaíso, for example, who lived through the military government's rule, told NACLA he shared the fear of the right's connection with the military government, and therefore put his support behind Frei and the Concertación.
Piñera's victory has no doubt moved Chile's politics to the right, but it may have also opened up the country's politics to new political forces. In this sense it is similar to the victory of Mexico's former president Vicente Fox in 2000. Fox, a member of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), broke the 71-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), established a fundamentally right-wing government but, with his victory, opened the landscape to a variety of new political actors.
Indeed, many believe the Chilean election demonstrated the narrowness of the political differences between the two major coalitions and the very solidity of Chile's electoral democracy. Patricio Navia, a political scientist at Chile's Universidad Diego Portales is one of them.
"The existence of two legitimate coalitions to govern will be beneficial for all of Chile. For years, the Concertación trusted too much it its moral superiority, and this is not healthy for Chile," Navia wrote in La Tercera, one of Chile's national newspapers. "Voting for Piñera is not a vote for the supporters of Pinochet and conservatives. Piñera represents a new right, that rejects the dictator and believes in equality of opportunity."
But some connections between the center-right and former military government are credible. For example, in 1989 Piñera was key in managing the presidential campaign of a former finance minister of the Pinochet government, Hernán Büchi. And on the campaign trail in December Piñera promised retired military officials that he would do what he could to end lawsuits brought against them by human rights victims of the military government's rule. Issues like these drew concern even among some Piñera supporters.
Piñera spoke often of economic progress, as Chile appears to be slowly climbing out of the global recession. He said on the campaign trail he would retain much of the Concertacion's social and economic policies (current President Michelle Bachelet has polled an approval rating of nearly 80%) while being tougher on crime and more aggressive in the nation's support of economic growth through small businesses. He launched a major billboard campaign with signs that read "Small Business, Big Opportunities".
He vowed to boost the economic growth rate to 6% a year and create a million jobs through labor sector reforms and tax incentives. His proposed labor reforms would, among other things, reduce labor costs by weakening the power of unions and reducing the cost of firing workers. He also said he would work to improve the efficiency of the state-owned copper company, a source of public sector profits the current president Michelle Bachelet used to stimulate the economy.
While Piñera's policies as the next president of Chile cannot be entirely certain, one thing is certain; Chile's electoral democracy has been broadened after 20 years of Concertación rule. "The center-right will now be considered fully integrated in the current democratic system," said Hugo Herrara a professor of philosophy at Chile's Universidad de los Andes. "[It] will be nothing less than the end of the transition from authoritarianism to full democracy. It will demonstrate the incorporative ability of a constitutional democracy."
Yet the story has just begun, Herrara adds. "Part of the success of the next government will depend on its doing things worth doing, not merely administrating them well"
Wes Kimbell is an independent journalist who has reported from Chile.