When Sebastián Piñera, the Coalition for Change candidate won Chile’s presidential run-off vote on January 17, 2010, it broke a run of 20 successive years of centre-left coalition governments. The last right-wing leader who ruled over Chile was General Augusto Pinochet, the military leader who between 1973 and 1990 conducted a secret war of terror against Chile’s socialist movement. Under Pinochet’s rule, it is believed that 3,000 people were killed, 28,000 went missing and thousands more sought exile.[1] Current leader Michelle Bachelet, who is due to step down in March 2010 after serving a maximum one term as leader under the country’s constitution, was tortured in the early years of Pinochet’s regime.

With Mr. Piñera’s victory, there is a chance for demons of the past to be buried forever. He has a unique opportunity to show the country and the world that a new era for Chile is beginning, and that his right-wing coalition governs for the future, not to be linked to the past.

Having served a senator in the Chilean Parliament between 1990 and 1998, this election was Mr. Piñera’s second bid for the presidency. He lost the 2006 election to moderate socialist Ms. Bachelet, Mr. Piñera spent $USD13.6 million during the campaign period.[2] The billionaire tycoon defeated his Christian Democrat rival Eduard Frei of the Christian Democrats by a margin of 51.6% to 48.4% in a 2nd round run-off.[3]

Since Chile has rebounded from the 2009 recession, Mr. Piñera will look to apply his business knowledge in steering the country through a period of stability and sustained growth. Mr. Piñera made his fortune by introducing credit cards to Chile in the 1980s. He has pledged that by March 2010, the time that he will take office, he will sell his 26% share in Lan Chile, the national airline whose stocks increased have eight-fold in the last decade.[4] In addition, Mr. Piñera owns a television channel, Chilevision, and heads Colo Colo, Chile’s most successful soccer club[5]. Forbes Magazine listed him in a tie for 701st place on the world’s richest list in November 2009, rating his fortune at $USD1 billion[6]. His sporting and media investments have drawn some initial comparisons with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, but Mr. Piñera comes across as less of an attention seeker who has not been dogged by corruption claims in the past.

What sets him apart is that he is also a keen conservationist who, prior to his presidential run in late 2009, was also president of Fundacion Futuro, with Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper placing him in a tie for equal 46th on their Green Rich List[7].

In describing himself as a “compassionate conservative”,[8] echoing the description used for George W. Bush’s 2000 U.S. presidential campaign, Mr. Piñera gambled to win votes from the middle-class. Crucial to his victory was attracting votes from the country’s gay community and abortion rights supporters.[9]

However, he will face a challenge to appease members of his own political coalition, the centrist National Renewal Party, the National Renovation Party and the staunchly conservative Independence Democratic Union (UDI). He has pledged to maintained popular social policies implemented by his predecessor, Ms. Bachelet, which benefited the poor, elderly, and women, to embark on major education reform, and to address law and order concerns.

But Mr. Piñera’s immediate focus will be the economy. He has pledged strong growth through the creation of one million jobs, is a strong advocate for smaller government, and has promised to privatize parts of Codelco, Chile’s state-owned copper producing enterprise.[10] Investment in the country’s copper industry continues to rise. Codelco recently signed a deal to allow Chinese mining firms greater access to Chile’s copper mines, with China overtaking the United States as Chile’s most important customer in the past two years.[11]

There is a sense that Mr. Piñera wishes to impose his influence upon the South American region, and the amicable relations he shared with soon-to-be outgoing socialist leader Michelle Bachelet may not be extended to others on the continent. Immediately after his victory, he took the opportunity to criticize Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, declaring that he disagreed with the way Caracas handled public issues as part of Chavez’s self-declared “new path” to a socialist revolution. Declaring that “these discrepancies [in Venezuela] are profound and have to do with the way democracy is conceived and implemented, the way the model of economic development is carried out, and many more”, Chávez reminded Mr. Piñera to “mind his own business.”[12] Whether such comments form the basis of a freezing in relations between Santiago and Caracas remain to be seen.  In addition, a maritime border dispute with Peru is currently in progress in the United Nations World Court.[13]

The other issue concerns his past links to the Pinochet regime. He supports the economic reforms implemented in the 1980s, and benefited from such moves. He was also the campaign manager of Pinochet’s unsuccessful presidential candidate for the 1989 election, former Finance Minister, Hernan Buchi. His brother, democracy advocate Jose Piñera, was Secretary of Labor and Social Security, as well as Secretary for Mining between 1978 and 1981.[14]

Although he continues to refute any support for Pinochet’s political ideologies in the past, members of the governing coalition in the UDI are still said to be supporters of the Pinochet era, in return for their support, the conservative elements will be demanding influential posts in government, Mr. Piñera maintains that no member of the coalition from that era will join his cabinet, a move that may not please all of his supporters.

There is no doubting Mr. Piñera’s drive and business smarts, suggesting that he wants the country to be even more successful. His track record suggests that his “can-do” approach aims to encourage more entrepreneurs and wealth. But such messages may risk alienating the poor, a group who received priority treatment under Ms. Bachelet. Mr. Piñera has promised to keep segments of her policies, but resistance from having to appease the more conservative coalition members and supporters of his agenda could prove damaging.

Mr. Piñera should be fully aware that must remember that success in business does not automatically translate to reaching the same heights in politics. Should the electorate be dissatisfied with the new President’s approach, then a future comeback by the still-popular Ms. Bachelet for the 2014 presidency should not be discounted.  Turning a new page does not necessarily mean turning over a new leaf.

 


[1] Smith, M. and Boyd, S. (2010), “Chilean President’s Pinochet Ties Revive Friedman-Style Economy”, Business Week, January 19,  http://www.businessweek.com/news/2010-01-19/chilean-president-s-pinochet-ties-revive-friedman-style-economy.html

[2] Ibid

[3] Presidential and Legislative Elections in Chile,  http://electionresources.org/cl/president.php?election=2009

[4] Smith, M. and Boyd, S. (2010), “Chilean President’s Pinochet Ties Revive Friedman-Style Economy”, Business Week, January 19,   http://www.businessweek.com/news/2010-01-19/chilean-president-s-pinochet-ties-revive-friedman-style-economy.html

[5] BBC News, Profile: Chile’s President-elect Sebastian Pinera, January 17, 2010 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/8461261.stm

[6] Forbes Magazine Online, The World’s Billionaires, http://www.forbes.com/lists/2009/10/billionaires-2009-richest-people_Sebastian-Pinera_YLRC.html

[7] Beresford, P., (2009), Eco Barons Lead the Way” Sunday Times Online, (2009), Green Profile – Sebastian Pinera, March 1, http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/specials/rich_list/article5821272.ece. Full list can be viewed at http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/specials/article5816774.ece

[8] Ibid

[9] Kraul, C. (2009), “Conservative leads in Chile election”, Los Angeles Times, December 14, http://www.latimes.com/news/nation-and-world/la-fg-chile-election14-2009dec14,0,6689380.story

[10] Barrionuevo, A., (2010) “Right-Wing Businessman Wins Chile’s Presidency”, New York Times, January 17, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/18/world/americas/18chile.html

[11] Fowler, J., (2010), “Chile and China make huge investments to increase copper production”, January 20, http://en.mercopress.com/2010/01/20/chile-and-china-make-huge-investments-to-increase-copper-production)

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/8464690.stm, .http://electionresources.org/cl/president.php?election=1989&region=

[12] El Universal, (2010) “Chávez Clashes With Chilean President-Elect”, Friday January 22, http://english.eluniversal.com/2010/01/22/en_ing_esp_chavez-clashes-with_22A3325091.shtml

[13] United Nations International Court of Justice, “Peru Institutes Proceedings Against Chile With Regard To A Dispute Concerning Maritime Delimitation Between the Two States”, Docket No. 2008/1, January 16, 2008, http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/files/137/14387.pdf

[14] Flowerree, S. “Seventy Article of Jose Pinera In Defense of Human Rights”, http://www.josepinera.com/pag/pag_tex_whatdidjp.htm