Chile vote is latest sign of region's shift to the center

In recent and upcoming races across Latin America, candidates have dropped a combative left-right discourse, and instead are appealing to a growing ideological center.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
On election day, voters cast their ballots at a local school on a Sunday. In Chile, women and men vote separately. Chile may elect a right-leaning candidate for the first time in 20 years.

Latin America lurched leftward during the last round of presidential elections, highlighted by the victory of Evo Morales in Bolivia in December 2005 to the re-election bid of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez a year later.
But as a new cycle is under way, with another dozen races this year and next, a different narrative is emerging. The biggest potential shift: Today in Chile, the leftist alliance that has governed for 20 years could lose to a conservative party for the first time since the fall of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship.
But Latin America is not suddenly swinging right. Rather, analysts say the races this year overall confirm that centrism is the ethos of the day. Candidates from Uruguay and El Salvador to Chile and Panama have dropped a combative left-right discourse, and instead are appealing to a growing ideological center.
Less fear of extremes
“These elections in Latin America show that [voters] do not fear either the left or the right. This is the first round of elections in which Latin America is relaxing about who to choose,” says Marta Lagos, the head of Latinobarometro, a polling organization in Chile that studies attitudes of Latin Americans.
According to Latinobarometro’s annual survey, Latin Americans who identify themselves as moderates grew from 29 percent in 2002 to 42 percent last year, the same time that several major leftist governments came into power. “Governments of the left were elected with votes of the center,” she says, adding that policies would eventually have to adjust to ideology.
The left has faced setbacks in some countries, most dramatically in Honduras, where President Manuel Zelaya was kicked out of the country after his foes feared he was cozying up to Mr. Chávez, the icon of the left in Latin America. In Nov. 29 elections, conservative National Party candidate Porfirio Lobo won.
In Mexico, leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador nearly squeaked out a victory in the 2006 presidential elections. Claiming fraud, he staged sit-ins and set up a “parallel” government with himself as the “legitimate” president of Mexico.
“It dealt him a serious credibility blow,” says Thomas Legler, an international relations professor at Iberoamerican University in Mexico City. Confounded by internal conflicts, Mr. López Obrador’s party came in last place in midterm elections in July.
In Chile, Sebastian Pinera, a conservative billionaire businessman, has led all polls for the Dec. 13 election. Although recent surveys suggest he will not gain the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff, the Center for Public Studies (CEP) released a poll showing that Mr. Pinera would win 43 percent in a runoff against the left’s Eduardo Frei, who would capture 37 percent.
“It would be a significant change in political leadership,” says Patricio Navia, a Chilean columnist and professor at New York University.
Some Chileans welcome the change. Nicolas Garcia, who is volunteering for the Pinera campaign, says that in 20 years in office the left has accomplished too little. “They say the left cares about the poor, but they just care about their own party,” he says. “The right will create more employment for the country.”
For others, the thought of having a right-leaning president is anathema. “If the right takes over Chile, I am leaving the country. I will take a cruise,” says Angel Aliaga, a chef observing a game of chess in the Plaza de Armas in downtown Santiago.
Still, Mr. Navia says, in Chile, both candidates as well as a third-party candidate who has electrified the race, are promising to maintain conservative fiscal policies and social protection programs.
Many voters consider themselves centrists who have matured beyond the right or left debate. Barbara Rosales holds a flag for Pinera on a recent day, but says her choice is not ideological. “We are past the taboos of the right,” says Ms. Rosales. “We are voting for the best person for the job.”
With the exception of conservative Álvaro Uribe in Colombia, it is a moderate agenda that has come to dominate Latin America. Those leaders on the left in many countries have veered from the positions associated with Chávez, for example, while those on the right have little chance of victory if they do not put social inclusion on their agenda, says Ms. Lagos.
Leftists lean to the middle
Outgoing Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who enjoys overwhelming popularity, and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva are perhaps the biggest symbols of this centrism. But in El Salvador, where the party of former Marxist guerrillas, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), won the presidency for the first time this year, President Mauricio Funes went to great pains to paint himself as a moderate.
In Uruguay, the presidential candidates could not have seemed more different, with victor Jose Mujica, a former Tupamaros guerrilla, pitted against a former right-leaning president, but their platforms were similar. “To win elections in Uruguay you have to be in the center,” says Alfredo Garcé, an analyst at the University of the Republic in Montevideo.

Matthew Clark contributed from Lima, Peru, and Jeff Farrell from Montevideo, Uruguay.

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