TV-celebrity populist out to shake up his country – from the left
A TV celebrity aims to become president so he can shake up a profoundly conservative political establishment. But this time it is not Donald Trump in the United States but a leftwing, green-minded former news anchor in Chile.
Alejandro Guillier, a veteran journalist who launched the weekly TV show Zero Tolerance, has surged to second place in the polls in recent months. It puts him in a strong position to represent the ruling Nueva Mayoría (New Majority) coalition in the presidential poll on 19 November.
There is still a long way to go, but the first-term senator appears to be enjoying an almost Trump-like political ascent – first becoming the only upper house representative of his small Radical Social Democratic party and now, as primary campaigns are about to begin, having pulled ahead of candidates from bigger parties in the governing bloc.
In the latest Adimark poll, Guillier was backed by 25%, while his nearest rival on the left had 4%. The favourite, however, remains former president Sebastián Piñera, a conservative billionaire who has a 29% support rate, despite multiple corruption allegations.
The Economist has suggested that Guillier could yet emulate Trump by riding a populist wave to snatch victory. But despite the parallels in trajectory and celebrity, the two could not be further apart in attitude and ideology.
“Yes, I am popular because for 25 years I was on TV and radio, reaching the homes and workplaces of Chileans,” Guillier said in a telephone interview with the Guardian. “But I am as distant from the Trump administration as I am from the Venezuela government. For me, it’s important to build a consensus.”
His policies – increased spending on health, education and pensions; improved access to abortions; greater autonomy and authority for communes; wider recognition of indigenous rights – have much in common with the outgoing centre-left president, Michelle Bachelet, who cannot stand again because of term limit rules. Guiller has pledged to do more to strengthen Chile’s climate resilience and to support greater regional integration and trade agreements.
Having just returned from a trip to China, he sees a future of closer links to Asia, the US and Europe. He predicts China – which already accounts for 28% of Chile’s trade, compared with 16% for the US – will play more of a leadership role.
But the former journalist is enough of a populist to assert that he is more in step with voters than the established parties.
“Our society is more progressive than its economic and political leaders,” he said. “Chile has dramatically changed in the last 10 to 15 years. I’m very proud of what has been accomplished.
“People look at Chile with respect, but we need to make a leap to a freer society with greater equality. We must reinvent ourselves a thousand and one times.”
Alejandro Guillier, a first-time senator, is the only member of his party in the upper house, but 25% of voters back him ahead of the November poll