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Chile’s election of conservative tycoon is democratic milestone

The election of conservative billionaire Sebastian Pinera as president of Chile is a democratic milestone for that country, just as the election of leftist President Mauricio Funes was for El Salvador last year. Like Funes, Pinera is more moderate than the parties that supported him and, therefore, was able to move the country beyond its violent past and deep divisions. He will take office after two decades of rule by a center-left coalition, in yet another sign that Chile has emerged from the shadow of the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Pinera succeeds popular incumbent President Michelle Bachelet, who was prohibited from seeking a second term by Chile’s post-Pinochet Constitution. His election marks not so much a national shift to the right as fatigue with the messy coalition that has held the office since the return of democratic rule in 1990. Pinera’s opponent, Eduardo Frei, who already had served as president from 1994 to 2000, was an uninspiring candidate selected by the political leadership rather than in a primary vote. The coalition also was widely criticized for filling government posts according to party quotas rather than merit. Pinera responded with a promise to pick the “most prepared, most honest and most dedicated” people for his government.

Chile’s economy has fared much better than most in Latin America during the global downturn, in part thanks to a “rainy day” fund from copper export revenue. Pinera, a Harvard-trained economist, has promised to maintain a state role in the economy and not to dismantle the country’s popular social welfare program. This is a moderate position for Latin America’s economic elite. Still of concern to some Chileans, however, is Pinera’s vast personal interest in the nation’s economy, particularly in LAN Airlines and the leading private television channel, Chile- vision. He bristles at comparisons with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a business tycoon who is perceived to use the media companies he controls in support of his political career and vice versa. Pinera said he has set up a blind trust to manage most of his wealth and promised to divest his LAN holdings -- a step he should consider with his media investments as well.

It is heartening that Chileans have cast their ballots on issues of governance rather than history. We hope Pinera will continue to move Chile beyond the trauma of the Pinochet years, in which about 3,000 political opponents were killed or disappeared. He has said he will not bring former members of Pinochet’s regime into government. We hope he also will nudge the military to cooperate on human rights cases from that era still making their way through the courts, so that chapter can finally be closed.

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