Chilean elections: ‘Extreme right’ candidate says he will move to the center for the runoff

SANTIAGO, Chile – Chilean presidential candidate Alejandro Guillier won a surprisingly decisive victory Sunday, but just barely, with 50.43 percent of the vote. His only opponent, the far-right Jair Bolsonaro, fell short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off.

Guillier emerged from an increasingly hard-left coalition formed by former dictator Augusto Pinochet, who died in 2006. In office from 1990 to 2006, he leaned harder toward greater market-friendly economic reforms. The move to the center and retirement age reform turned him out of favor with the left, though, and he’s the anti-Pinochet candidate on this year’s Chilean ballot. His big victory will mean Chile will soon have its first Socialist president since Salvador Allende was ousted in a 1973 coup.

Only by staying in Chile’s runoff would Bolsonaro, a former army general and currently the candidate for the ruling right-wing coalition, the Partido Concertacion, succeed for the fourth time. That could happen if his campaign co-founder and running mate, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, passes on throwing his support behind Bolsonaro in the second round.

In a reversal of the usual analogy, political analyst Gonzalo Royo toed the left on Sunday, where his friend Guillier and his fellow nominee, Mauricio Macri of Argentina, ran to the right.

It was not to be for the Gonzalo Royo blog, where political analyst Gonzalo Royo just published a round-up in which he cautions that running to the right is not a recipe for electoral success in Chilean politics. The conclusion: Running to the left in Chile can cost you the presidency. It’s a big turnaround after the left-of-center Pasola Patriotic Front (FPF) ran on a platform of “Impeach Pinochet.” There was speculation that they would give the FFP’s presidential candidate, Alvaro Arzu, to the opposition conservative party.

It doesn’t always work that way. While offering speeches at Sunday’s victory celebration, Guillier pointed to “understandings between the constituent governments in Chile” that led to the friendship of the two main parties. For that kind of communication to take place at the top, progressive presidents have to have been able to recognize and work with mainstream groups that have survived under a Pinochet shadow.

“In Chile, progressive groups get a little momentum,” Royo said. “But it’s not a healthy thing. It can get divorced because centrists have been dominating the scenario.”

For Arzu and his compatriots, Pinochet’s unpopularity clouded political discourse. That marked the last time a real presidential runoff took place in Chile, with the 1996 elections that included Pinera. In 2001, the left-of-center coalition forced the right-wing Chile Democrática out of power, and in 2006, the left narrowly forced a runoff.

Bolsonaro would face current President Sebastian Pinera, a former Wall Street businessman, if he reaches the runoff. Both Pinera and Guillier want to cut taxes and public spending, and they stand to benefit from the rise of a populist tide in Latin America.

“It’s not an easy time for progressive values in Latin America,” Royo said.

Like its neighbor, Argentina, Chile struggled economically during this year’s global commodities price sell-off. The country’s balance of trade deteriorated this year, with exports slumping 14 percent, and imports rising 8 percent. But the improvement in copper prices after a decline of 18 percent since June 2017 could go a long way toward turning around the South American economy.

The decision by Guillier to go for the middle-of-the-road popular vote comes just in time. Guillier’s landslide campaign was born in part of social media exposure, which brought a younger Chilean generation to the political process. He ended up collecting 31 percent of first-round votes in Chile and has a cushion of 19.2 percent.

With 43.9 percent of votes tallied, Bolsonaro, a former mayor of Sao Paulo who has never held elective office, leads the opposition conservative party ticket. He’s failed to reach 50 percent of the vote four times in past elections, though he doesn’t need a majority to be elected president.

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