Chile election: Conservative billionaire wins first round

Sebastian Piñera, a conservative billionaire, won 44 percent of the vote in Chile's election on Sunday, putting the left at risk of losing the helm for the first time since right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet stepped down nearly 20 years ago.

Ivan Alvarado/Reuters
Chilean right-wing opposition alliance presidential candidate Sebastian Pinera holds a Chilean flag in Santiago on Sunday after he finished first in the general elections.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Volunteers and supporters of conservative billionaire Sebastian Piñera campaigned in Santiago, Chile, on Dec. 2.

Conservative billionaire Sebastian Piñera garnered the most votes in Chile's election Sunday, but he did not win enough to avoid a run-off vote on Jan. 17.

Now Chile's fractured left faces a tough battle to defeat him in the second round. If they don't, the left will lose the helm of the country for the first time since right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet stepped down nearly 20 years ago.

Mr. Piñera, who ran on a campaign of change, got 44 percent of votes and will face Eduardo Frei, from the ruling leftist alliance who captured 30 percent of votes, according to nearly complete official results.

Mr. Frei, of the Concertacion alliance, has played up the right's link to Mr. Pinochet's dictatorship. A vote for Piñera, he maintains, is a vote for Chile's dark past.

Some voters believe the message, fearing that the right will reverse years of social protection put in place by the Concertacion.

“I am poor, and I am worried that we will lose everything we have earned,” especially worker´s rights and support for single mothers, says Eva Rivera, a Frei supporter who lost her job as a salesperson this year. “We are on the right course with the Concertacion.”

Outgoing President Michelle Bachelet from the Concertacion does enjoy widespread personal support, but many voters still say that a new party must take over the country's top ranks to improve education, boost the economy, and bring more transparency to the government.

Carlos Diaz, who set up his own plumbing business, says that Chile needs a change in leadership. “I do not think the right of today is the same as the right of 25 years ago,” he says. “It is time to give someone else a try. Not having alternation of power is not healthy.” Case and point for him: Frei was already president once.

Third party candidate Marco Enriquez-Ominami, also a leftist, electrified the race after he broke off from the Concertacion and won over support from those dissatisfied with the ruling party but unwilling to support the right. He garnered 19 percent of votes. Another leftist, Jorge Arrate, captured 6 percent of votes.

If the left were to band together, they would triumph over Piñera, but pre-election surveys showing run-off scenarios have given the right-leaning candidate the edge.

That is because many of the votes that went to Mr. Enriquez-Ominami, who also ran on a platform of change from the grip of the Concertacion, could go to Piñera.

“I am not from any party,” says Mr. Diaz, the plumber. Right and left means little to him, he says. “But the Concertacion has simply been in power for too long.”

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