It cuts at least two ways. With Sebastián Piñera in Chile, another millionaire gains power in the Americas, or that yet another president now joins the centre-right wave. Because, following on from Mauricio Macri’s victory in Argentina (2015), Pedro Pablo Kuczynski’s in Peru and Donald Trump’s in the United States (both in 2016) – all themselves millionaire businessmen – everything indicates that tomorrow Piñera will be returning to the presidency in Chile.
But in stages. The surveys (the latest from a fortnight ago) say that the former CEO of LAN airline will finish first in tomorrow’s general election and that he and the runner-up – journalist Alejandro Guillier of the outgoing centre-left Fuerza de Mayoría coalition – will proceed to a December 17 run-off, since tomorrow’s winner will not top 50 percent of the vote. Was Piñera’s first term so great that Chileans now want to re-open the doors of the Casa de la Moneda to him? Perhaps the answer is that there is only scope for “Come back, Piñera,” not so much because Michelle Bachelet mark II was disappointing (cases of corruption within her family undermined her positive image) as because the traditional centre-left coalition running in every election since 1989 (basically, the Christian Democrats and the Socialists alongside smaller parties, successively renamed Concertación, Nueva Mayoría and now Fuerza de Mayoría for this election) has become a cat’s choir so out of tune that they have left the way open for the centre-right.
Can the centre-left regroup to compete against Piñera in December’s run-off? What will be the role of the hitherto intransigent Communist Party? Whither the first-round votes of Carolina Goic (the Christian Democrat running outside the ruling party ticket with voting intentions of five percent according to the opinion polls) since some pundits say that part of that vote will switch to Piñera in the run-off? Or will they join Guillier, a political outsider competing against the seasoned Piñera in his third presidential campaign?
Such questions are answered by the other presidential campaign veteran also running for the third time, the PRO Progressive Party’s Marco Enríquez- Ominami (MEO), who is variously forecast by some opinion polls to finish third or fourth tomorrow. MEO, who in 2009 came third in the first round with 20 percent of the vote, assures that he will not repeat his error of that year when he denied run-off support to the Concertación candidate Eduardo Frei, who was defeated by Piñera a few weeks later.
“On Sunday night I will call all those (politicians) interested in constructing a united alternative to Piñera,” he said when consulted by the Buenos Aires Times this week. “Piñera is like a retro bulldozer who wants to roll back gender and reproductive rights but does not want to advance toward free public university education,” he defines. “Not only am I a candidate but I also want to be the leader of a united front – today (Thursday, November 16) I announced that I was incorporating the ideas and proposals of other candidates into my government platform,” says MEO.
Asked if Chile might emulate the US with a right-leaning millionaire president tempted by populism and whether Latin America is condemned to either left-wing or right-wing populism (during Piñera’s first term, some members of his UDI coalition partners called his social policies “populist”), an uncomfortable Ominami replied to the Times: “Our progressive sector faces a challenge in Latin America after leftist policies have been caricatured as populist when in reality they are confronted by a nationalism as or more dangerous than the presumed populism,” continuing: “The nationalists increase military spending in a continent where poverty levels are still unacceptably huge.”
“Besides we do not see an economic vision on the right, limited to issuing bonds, placing its economy and people into greater debt with fiscal irresponsibility,” says the Chilean PRO leader with a discourse which seems to be a carbon copy of the criticisms which any right-winger might make of the centre-left.
A discourse typical of the final sprint of a campaign? Perhaps but Chilean statistics provide a basis for progressive arguments – a per capita anual income of US$20,000 is so badly distributed that three-quarters of the population earn US$700 a month.
Perhaps Marco Enríquez-Ominami, a young veteran of 44, has pricked the side of the voters’ intentions with his pledge of unity. An estimated 40 percent are expected to head for the ballot-boxes, which would be one of the lowest of turnouts so far. Perhaps he can attract the voting centres, those segments which could add an ingredient of change, namely the young, the poor and those who live in suburban neighbourhoods.
With the centre-left candidates constantly bickering, and with Beatriz Sánchez as the head of a feeble centre-left coalition (representing university students, who cannot be candidates because they are under the age admitted by the Constitution), his promise of unity could steer another course to an election already being depicted by most of the pundits and surveys as a mere walkover for the billionaire Piñera.
We shall see.
(*) Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald. (2010-2013)