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Conservative billionaire leads race for Chilean presidency

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2009-12-13

Conservative billionaire Sebastian Pinera (pictured) is the frontrunner in the presidential vote, but two younger candidates, 36 year old Marco Enriquez-Ominami and 34 year old Rodrigo Garcia-Pinochet have spiced up the electoral campaign.

Conservative billionaire Sebastian Pinera could put an end to 20 years of centre-left rule in Chile if, as the most recent opinion poll suggests, he emerges victorious from Chile’s presidential election, which enters a first round on Sunday, Dec. 13.

Conservative candidate Sebastian Pinera

Yet, ironically, a Pinera victory could owe much to left-wing political newcomer Marco Enriquez-Ominami, a former member of the Socialist Party who broke away in June to run as an independent for the top office in Latin America's most stable economy.

A 36-year-old congressman and filmmaker, Enriquez-Ominami has fired up an otherwise uninspiring election campaign, accusing his opponents, all aged over sixty, of being spent establishment figures. His campaign quickly won over many followers, fracturing the vote on the left.

With 17% of the projected votes Enriquez-Ominami, who is commonly referred to as MEO for the sake of brevity, is likely to fall short of the result required to make the second round of the election. But his aggressive campaign may have done irreparable damage to centre-left rival Eduardo Frei, the man picked by the “Concertation”, the ruling coalition of outgoing President Michelle Bachelet, as its candidate.

Former Chilean President Eduardo Frei

Frei, a seasoned politician and former Chilean president, is expected to take on right-wing candidate Pinera in a January 17 run-off. But, having struggled to ride the wave of Bachelet's huge popularity, he looks set to enter the contest as the runner-up and with a tattered image courtesy of MEO’s harsh attacks.

“Far too much bad blood has been spewed during the campaign,” says FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Santiago, Jorge Garreton. “It would be extremely difficult for Enriquez-Ominami to be an active supporter of Frei in the run-off.”

Challenging political tradition

The name Enriquez-Ominami carries some weight in Chile. MEO’s father, Miguel Enriquez, was the leader of the revolutionary Marxist MIR

movement. He waged a guerrilla war against the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, before the regime encircled and killed him in 1974.

Marco, aged one at the time, had already fled to France with his mother, returning to Chile only in 1986. He would later add Ominami to his name, in honour of his stepfather, Senator Carlos Ominami. A successful film director, Enriquez-Ominami is married to a popular television personality, Karen Doggenweiler, and appeals in particular to younger voters.

The dark horse of Chile’s election describes himself as a progressive-liberal and is far from sharing the revolutionary ideas of his father. While he has called for a new constitution and broad educational reform, Enriquez-Ominami has also been known to defend liberal policies for the economy.

A divisive name returns

Another familiar name has made headlines ahead of Chile’s general election. Rodrigo Garcia-Pinochet, the grandson of the infamous late dictator who ruled Chile for 17 years, is running for a congressional seat in a wealthy district of the capital, Santiago.

Like Enriquez-Ominami, Garcia-Pinochet is unlikely to win on Sunday. After failing to receive the support of the conservative UDI party, Garcia-Pinochet decided to run as an independent, and is expected to siphon votes from the conservative coalition.

Yet, unlike MEO, the scion of the Pinochet clan is not seen by all as heralding a change in Chilean politics. Gabriel Garcia, a 30-year-old executive who lives in Garcia-Pinochet’s district, says he fears the dictator’s grandson will take his country backwards, to a past that Chileans have strived to bury.

Though he will support the conservative ticket, Garcia concedes that Enriquez-Ominami’s inspired run for the presidency appeals to his generation. “My closest circle of friends identifies with Marco (Enriquez-Ominami), because of his political courage, but not with Rodrigo (Garcia-Pinochet), who in no way represents a new kind of politics,” he says.


Date created : 2009-12-13


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