In Chile, it may be bil­lion­aire vs. news­caster

The South Amer­i­can na­tion’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in Novem­ber will be un­der­scored by re­cent eco­nomic slumps

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY NICK MIROFF IN SAN­TI­AGO, CHILE nick.miroff@wash­post.com

Right-wing can­di­dates have been win­ning races across Latin Amer­ica lately, and with Chile’s econ­omy sag­ging, con­ser­va­tive bil­lion­aire Se­bastián Piñera ap­pears headed for a re­turn to power in the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion sched­uled for Novem­ber.

But Piñera, who led Chile from 2010 to 2014, may be at risk of run­ning into one of the other pre­vail­ing forces in global pol­i­tics: an anti-es­tab­lish­ment up­surge, which could ben­e­fit his likely op­po­nent, left­ist sen­a­tor and former news an­chor Ale­jan­dro Guil­lier.

The cam­paign will be closely watched in the com­ing months. Chile is one of Latin Amer­ica’s lead­ing economies, and the coun­try is often held up as an ex­am­ple of clean, tech­no­cratic gov­er­nance.

With their cam­paigns not yet of­fi­cial, Piñera and Guil­lier are polling vir­tu­ally even. That alone is no small feat for Guil­lier, 64, an in­de­pen­dent and rel­a­tive po­lit­i­cal new­comer with lit­tle sup­port from Chile’s es­tab­lished par­ties. With Piñera nagged by ac­cu­sa­tions of un­scrupu­lous busi­ness deals and con­flicts of in­ter­est, Guil­lier could pull off an up­set, an­a­lysts say.

“If eco­nomic growth isn’t the cen­tral theme of the elec­tion, and it be­comes a ref­er­en­dum on the es­tab­lish­ment and Chile’s po­lit­i­cal class, then the win­ner will be Guil­lier,” said Roberto Mén­dez, pres­i­dent of GFK Adi­mark, a lead­ing poll­ster.

Af­ter a decade dur­ing which left­ists dom­i­nated South Amer­i­can elec­tions, right-wing can­di­dates have won the pres­i­dency in Ar­gentina and Peru, with con­ser­va­tives also far­ing well in Brazil’s re­cent mu­nic­i­pal con­tests.

Piñera prom­ises to re­store the sheen to the so-called Chilean model, a mes­sage that has broad ap­peal at a time when the coun­try’s cur­rent gov­ern­ment, led by left­ist Pres­i­dent Michelle Bachelet, has been plumb­ing the depths of voter dis­ap­proval. Hob­bled by scan­dals, stum­bles and nat­u­ral dis­as­ters in­clud­ing Chile’s worstever wild­fires, the once-pop­u­lar Bachelet saw her ap­proval rat­ing slump to 23 per­cent in GFK Adi­mark’s Fe­bru­ary sur­vey.

Guil­lier, 64, won a se­nate seat in 2013 af­ter a long ca­reer on Chile’s nightly news, dur­ing which he was often rated by au­di­ences as the coun­try’s most trusted broad­caster. “It’s as if Wal­ter Cronkite de­cided to run for of­fice,” Mén­dez said.

The big­gest knock on him, an­a­lysts say, is that he’s untested and hasn’t laid out a plan for change. And though Guil­lier is not part of the Bachelet gov­ern­ment, he hasn’t bro­ken with her ei­ther.

“Guil­lier has a very nar­row path to vic­tory,” said po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst As­canio Cavallo. “This elec­tion is go­ing to be very difficult for the cen­ter-left be­cause of what it’s in­her­ited from the cur­rent gov­ern­ment.”

Piñera, 67, ap­peals with a mes­sage akin to “make Chile great again” — al­beit less as a mat­ter of na­tion­al­ism than one of man­age­rial com­pe­tence and ef­fi­ciency. With an es­ti­mated $2.7 bil­lion for­tune from in­vest­ments in bank­ing, air­lines and other in­dus­tries, Piñera may be the only politi­cian in the Amer­i­cas whose wealth could ri­val Pres­i­dent Trump’s.

Piñera ended his first term with mixed rat­ings, but he won high marks for his han­dling of an 8.8mag­ni­tude earth­quake in 2010 and for free­ing 33 trapped min­ers whose plight cap­tured the world’s at­ten­tion that year. Chile’s sys­tem does not al­low pres­i­dents to serve con­sec­u­tive terms.

Anger at the gov­ern­ment’s han­dling of this year’s wild­fires, which have killed at least 11 peo­ple and scorched more than a mil­lion acres, has trans­lated into sup­port for a leader who can steer the coun­try through a cri­sis.

One of Chile’s wealth­i­est men, Piñera is viewed as a cen­ter-right mod­er­ate and not a fig­ure as­so­ci­ated with the hard-right con­ser­vatism of the coun­try’s 1973-1990 mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship. Yet Piñera be­came the tar­get of stu­dent rage at the end of his first pres­i­dency, when huge street protests chal­lenged the coun­try’s neo-lib­eral eco­nomic model.

Those demon­stra­tions helped in the elec­toral vic­tory of Bachelet, who had served as Chile’s first fe­male pres­i­dent from 2006 to 2010. But her cur­rent term has been far rock­ier, and a cor­rup­tion scan­dal in­volv­ing her son and daugh­ter-in-law seems to have ir­repara­bly dam­aged her pub­lic im­age.

Her pro­pos­als for sweep­ing changes to Chile’s tax codes and pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem have come up short.

Bachelet is so un­pop­u­lar that former pres­i­dent Ri­cardo La­gos, who fin­ished his term in 2006 with high marks, has fallen far be­hind Guil­lier as the can­di­date of the cen­ter-left in the cur­rent race, be­cause he’s viewed as close to the gov­ern­ment.

“What’s in cri­sis is the left, here just as ev­ery­where,” said Cavallo. “They don’t have a plan, other than to ex­pand wel­fare ben­e­fits and the size of the state, even when re­sources aren’t avail­able to do it.”

Piñera ap­peals to Chileans who think the coun­try has gone off the rails and needs to re­turn to the lais­sez-faire for­mula cred­ited for decades of growth. Chile’s econ­omy has been ex­pand­ing at roughly 2 per­cent in re­cent years, about half as fast as it did a decade ago, when South Amer­ica’s com­mod­ity ex­ports were boom­ing.

Piñera made a for­tune dur­ing those years, but now his big­gest li­a­bil­ity may be his sprawl­ing in­vest­ment port­fo­lio.

He has come un­der fire in re­cent months for rev­e­la­tions that his fam­ily in­vested in a Peru­vian fish­ing com­pany that may have ben­e­fited from mar­itime ac­cords Piñera ne­go­ti­ated while in of­fice. His de­fend­ers counter that the in­vest­ments were made through a blind trust.

Prose­cu­tors say they also are look­ing at claims that Piñera’s gov­ern­ment blocked a hy­dro­elec­tric plant, the con­struc­tion of which would have af­fected his stake in a min­ing com­pany.

Piñera has not faced any charges and de­nies any wrong­do­ing, ac­cus­ing Chile’s Com­mu­nist Party of mount­ing a “dirty cam­paign” to keep him out of of­fice.

Still, an­a­lysts say the cur­rent anti-es­tab­lish­ment po­lit­i­cal cli­mate leaves vot­ers es­pe­cially sen­si­tive to claims of im­pro­pri­ety, and Piñera will pay a steep price if the ac­cu­sa­tions linger.

With no other lead­ing fig­ure on the right aside from Piñera, the ben­e­fi­ciary of voter dis­sat­is­fac­tion would be Guil­lier. His many years on tele­vi­sion make him a fa­mil­iar, lik­able fig­ure to many Chileans, and he is not viewed as part of the coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal and busi­ness elite.

In per­haps the clear­est sign that the race will be Piñera’s to lose, 45 per­cent of the 1,051 Chileans who re­sponded to Adi­mark’s Fe­bru­ary sur­vey said they ex­pected Piñera to win, re­gard­less of whether they planned to vote for him or not. Only 28 per­cent pre­dicted a vic­tory for Guil­lier.

RO­DRIGO GAR­RIDO/REUTERS

CHRIS­TIAN MI­RANDA/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IM­AGES

TOP: Sen­a­tor Ale­jan­dro Guil­lier is seen in­side the Chilean congress in Val­paraiso, Chile in Jan­uary. ABOVE: Former Chilean Pres­i­dent Se­bastián Piñera, left, and Chilean right-wing lawyer and San­ti­ago may­oral can­di­date Felipe Alessan­dri greet sup­port­ers dur­ing mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions in Oc­to­ber 2016.

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