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Billionaire businessman and ex-TV anchorman face off in Chile’s presidential election

Sebastian Pinera, left, and Alejandro Guillier before the start of a presidential debate Dec. 11 in Santiago, Chile.
Sebastian Pinera, left, and Alejandro Guillier before the start of a presidential debate Dec. 11 in Santiago, Chile.
(Esteban Felix / Associated Press)

Chileans will vote Sunday in a runoff presidential election to choose between former President Sebastian Piñera and one-time TV news anchor Alejandro Guillier in a race that pollsters say is too close to call.

Analysts describe the vote as a choice between economic growth incentives as promoted by Piñera, or a continuation of social reforms advanced by outgoing President Michelle Bachelet and endorsed by Guillier.

A recent voter preference survey by pollster Cadem indicated a technical tie with Piñera at 39.8% and Guillier at 37.3%. The Chilean stock exchange surged higher Friday on expectations Piñera may win. But heavy voter turnout could well favor Guillier.

“What is playing out in this election is the legacy of Bachelet’s government,” said Claudio Fuentes, a professor at Diego Portales University. “On one hand we have [Piñera], who is betting on a right-wing liberal government, with a strong emphasis on the economy and individual entrepreneurship, versus the more social democratic style of Bachelet.”

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A wealthy center-right businessman who held office from 2010 to 2014, Piñera has promised to gradually cut corporate taxes, eliminate “unnecessary” government spending and make Chile’s pension system competitive. His campaign’s focus has been an emphasis on programs to restart Chile’s stalled economy.

One of South America’s wealthiest men, with a fortune estimated at $2.7 billion and ownership stakes in airlines, sports teams and investment funds, Piñera attracted global attention in 2010 when as president he oversaw the successful rescue of 33 Chilean miners trapped in a mine.

Guillier, 64, a left-of-center broadcaster who left television in 2013 to run a successful campaign for senator, has promised to increase pensions and partially forgive student debt. During the campaign, he raised the possibility of increasing taxes on the rich, saying: “We will put our hands in the pockets of millionaires.”

A native of Antofagasta in northern Chile, Guillier promised to pay more attention to problems of cities other than the capital Santiago. He emerged as a left-leaning presidential candidate earlier this year after socialist former President Ricardo Lagos failed to attract support.

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Although Piñera led the first round of voting in November with 36.7% of votes cast to Guillier’s 22.7%, left-wing candidates received a majority of votes cast. Abstention among Chile’s 14.3 million eligible voters was a high 53.5% in the first round, and neither candidate seems to have generated much enthusiasm among voters this time around.

Poll workers prepare for the presidential runoff in Santiago, Chile, Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017. Turnout is expected to be low on Sunday.
Poll workers prepare for the presidential runoff in Santiago, Chile, Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017. Turnout is expected to be low on Sunday.
(Esteban Felix / Associated Press )

Beatriz Sanchez, who finished third in the first round with 20.3%, has thrown her support to Guillier.

“It will be a close election, which will confirm …. that Chile is practically divided into equal halves from a political, social and cultural point of view,” said Max Colodro, a political science professor at Adolfo Ibáñez University in Santiago, the capital. The division has been evident ever since the 1988 referendum that returned the country to democracy after 17 years of rule by dictator Augusto Pinochet, he said.

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Bachelet will leave office in March with a mixed legacy. Although social activists praised her reforms aimed at increasing women’s rights and pension coverage, the economy has slowed to 1.4% growth this year, a fraction of the average annual expansion during the previous decade.

Chile’s trade-driven economy has suffered from the global commodity downturn, especially the dive in copper prices, revenues that account for nearly half of the country’s exports. Unemployment is stable and relatively low at 6.7% but foreign investment has plunged.

Although she left office highly popular after her first four-year term ended in 2010, Bachelet has seen her image stained by alleged influence-peddling by her daughter-in-law Natalia Compagnon. She has been charged with malfeasance in her real estate dealings, but her case has not yet gone to trial.

By the same token, Piñera has disappointed supporters who expected him to better galvanize center-right factions and finish stronger in November’s first round. In the runoff campaign’s final stages, both candidates moved to the center, with Piñera promising free tuition for technical students and Guillier saying he would not jettison the private pension system installed by Pinochet.

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The two candidates spent the final days of the campaign trying to show voters they each had received international support. Piñera was endorsed by Argentinian President Mauricio Macri, former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, while Guillier garnered backing from Uruguay’s former President Jose Mujica.

Special correspondents Poblete and Kraul reported from Santiago, Chile and Bogota, Colombia, respectively.


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