Sebastián Piñera won Chile’s runoff elections on January 17, marking the first loss by the center-left Concertación coalition since the country’s return to democracy. Despite a narrowing race in the days leading up to the second round of elections, the conservative billionaire emerged as the clear victor by Sunday evening, pulling in nearly 52 percent of the vote against former President Eduardo Frei. Although outgoing President Michelle Bachelet commands remarkably high approval ratings, Piñera’s pledge to use his business acumen helped propel him above Frei and, in the first round, young political newcomer Marco Enríquez-Ominami.
A win by Piñera of the Coalition for Change may come as little surprise after a review of December’s first-round results. He came out ahead of his rivals with 44 percent of the vote, well above Frei’s nearly 30 percent. But Piñera’s failure to pull in the requisite majority vote forced Sunday’s runoff and sparked a battle for the votes of third-place Enríquez-Ominami, also known as ME-O.
It was the candidacy of the young, charismatic ME-O that shook up the race between the two more established politicians. The 36-year-old former filmmaker, who ran as an independent after his candidacy was rejected, courted young voters with campaign promises such as a pledge to lower the voting age to 16. But this tactic may have failed given apathy among Chile’s younger voters; only 9.2 percent of Chileans aged 18 to 29 registered to vote in the December elections. ME-O won 20 percent of the vote. As a center-left candidate, his candidacy appeared to eat into into Frei’s following more so than Pinera’s. On January 13, ME-O announced his plans to vote for Frei. On the same day, Chilean pollsters MORI revealed that the Frei-Piñera race had tightened, with the former trailing the latter by 2 percentage points.
But the last-minute boost proved too little too late and Piñera became Chile’s first conservative to win the presidency in more than 50 years. Following news of his victory, Piñera, who apparently managed to excorcize the right's darkest polictical demon—General August Pinochet—with his win, said that Chile “needs unity now more than ever.” The president-elect, who previously ran in 2005, has said he will continue successful social programs conceived under his predecessor, who ranks as Chile’s most popular president in history with an approval rating of 81 percent. Piñera inherits leadership of the first South American country to join the Organization of Economic Development. Chile is regarded as an economic star in Latin America. However, the country still faces high income inequality, education gaps, and social tensions. During campaigns, Piñera has professed that the private sector should play a bigger role in boosting the Chilean economy and resolving lingering economic woes.
- "Candidates Locked in Tight Race for Chile's Second Round," Viewpoints Americas, Juan Cruz Díaz, January 15, 2009.
- Read AS/COA analysis of the first round.
- Reuters factbox of candidates' proposed policies.
- Website of Chile’s Electoral Service.
- Election results posted by the Chile’s Ministry of Interior.