Center-right billionaire Sebastian Piñera held a strong lead in the polls going into Chile's presidential election Sunday, positioning the country's conservatives to take the reins from Chile's center-left alliance for the first time since 1990 when dictator Augusto Pinochet was forced to step down peacefully. But the clear frontrunner was not expected to win outright, putting the spotlight on the surprisingly strong wildcard candidacy of Marco Enriquez-Ominami, a young leftist who broke off from his party to run as an independent.
Even though outgoing socialist President Michelle Bachelet enjoys approval ratings of over 70 percent, voters seem to be growing weary of the Concertacion political alliance she represents. And while Mr. Enriquez-Ominami is polling behind both the traditional parties on the right and the left, the fact that he could face one in a runoff is being watched as a potential advancement for Chilean democracy.
“The main problem of Chile is not the transition to democracy but the consolidation of democracy,” says Ricardo Israel, a political expert at the Autonomous University of Chile. A third party brings competition to the race, he says, that “obligates” the traditional parties to react, even after the race. “I hope that this election helps create a more vigorous democracy.”
The most recent polls show that Mr. Piñera will not receive the 50-plus percent of votes needed to avoid a runoff. He faces former president Eduardo Frei of the ruling party, who is in second place. But Enriquez-Ominami, in third, has surged in polls in recent weeks.
Chile loves outgoing Bachelet, just not her political alliance
The high approval ratings of Ms. Bachelet, the nation's first female head of state, are attributed to her reforms to the pension system and steering Chile out of economic crisis with the windfall saved during boom times from copper exports.
But this race has revealed fatigue for the political alliance that she is part of. Guillermo Pattillo, an adviser to Piñera, says that Chile, whose economy boomed in the 1980s and 90s, needs a stronger and more dynamic one today. “Piñera wants to return to more growth,” Mr. Pattillo says. “It is not impossible ... to go back to that era.”
Candidates of 'change'
Both Piñera and Enriquez-Ominami, who is just 36 and a former film director, are touting themselves as the candidates of “change.” But with little differences between major policies between the right and left, in some ways, the split in the left created by Enriquez-Ominami´s departure is the biggest change to the nation´s political scene.
“Enriquez-Ominami has brought to the race the idea that you can get more change without the Concertacion,” says Patricio Navia, a Chilean columnist and professor at New York University who has written a book on the candidate.
Marcela Morales, an English teacher in Santiago, says that her vote is with Frei, but that she views the Enriquez-Ominami candidacy as a strong signal that voters long for new political faces. “For me Enriquez-Ominami is too untested,” Ms. Morales says, “but as a phenomenon he will contribute to the renewal of democracy in Chile.”
Young voters play key role
Age among voters is also playing a role, helping both opposition candidates. Piñera, says Mr. Navia, is benefitting from the votes of young voters tired of the Concertacion but who did not necessarily live under a dictatorship and do not see the right as taboo. For his part, Enriquez-Ominami appeals to voters who have relaxed their views on social issues such as divorce and abortion in this deeply religious country.
“Chile is increasingly becoming a more liberal country,” says Mr. Israel, and voting for the right might scare away those who fear it represents a return to deep social conservatism of the past.
Johanna Aguilera, a waitress at a coffee shop in the port town of Valparaiso, says that therapeutic abortion and a strict divide between the church and state are priorities for her and that she sees Enriquez-Ominami as the most suited to secure them. “The other two are unappealing. Frei has already been president,” she says.
“And Piñera owns half of Chile,” adds Claudia Rosas, her colleague.
“At least,” says Ms. Aguilera, “Enriquez-Ominami is new.”