Pinera wins first presidential round, faces Frei in run-off

Conservative Harvard-educated businessman Sebastian Pinera led Chile’s presidential election but fell short of an outright victory and will face centre-left former president Eduardo Frei in a January run-off.


AFP - Conservative billionaire Sebastian Pinera won the first round of elections in Chile Sunday to choose a successor to outgoing leftist President Michelle Bachelet, nearly complete results showed.

Pinera scored 44 percent of the ballots, ahead of nearest rival Eduardo Frei, a leftist former president who collected 30 percent, according to a tally of 59 percent of polling stations given by the interior ministry.

The pair will now face off in a second, knockout round on January 17.

Conservative candidate Sebastian Pinera
Conservative candidate Sebastian Pinera

Sunday's polls also renewed most of Chile's congress, filling the 120-seat Chamber of Deputies and 20 of the 38 Senate seats.

Despite his triumph in Sunday balloting, Pinera could face a tough battle to grab Bachelet's office in the second round of polls.

Much of the left's fragmented vote was expected to swing behind Frei, the 67-year-old candidate of the center-left Concertacion coalition, which has ruled for the past two decades, since the end of General Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship.

Former Chilean President Eduardo Frei
Former Chilean President Eduardo Frei

Sunday's incomplete count showed that 19 percent of the ballots went to Marco Enriquez Ominami, a former filmmaker who ran as a leftist independent, and Jorge Arrata, a communist economist, got five percent.

Enrique Ominami, though, refused to endorse Frei, saying both he and Pinera fronted policies that were "more from yesterday than today."

The results of Sunday's vote were in line with pre-election surveys.

One of those polls, by the CERC public studies center, tentatively suggested that Pinera -- the billionaire owner of one of Chile's four television networks who also has stakes in the LAN national airline and a football club -- could win the January duel with 49 percent to 32 percent for Frei.

Widely considered uncharismatic, Frei has thus far failed to get much of a boost from Bachelet's full-throated support.


The current president, 58, will complete her four-year mandate in March 2010. Chile's constitution bars her from seeking reelection.

Despite seeing the country's economy contract under the global crisis on her watch, Bachelet enjoys sky-high support of 80 percent.

Her popularity stems from policies that provided genuine benefits for the country's poor -- and for maintaining a "rainy day" fund from copper export revenues that mitigated the worst of the crisis.

Pinera, who lost his first presidential bid in a January 2006 run-off against Bachelet, exuded confidence.

"Better times are coming for those having it rough," he said as he voted.

He boasted that the Concertacion coalition "is over... They exhausted themselves politically a long time ago."

A senator allied to Pinera, Andres Allamand, said of the results: "While the referee has not called an end to the match, we have to play up to the end. But even so, this is an extraordinary advantage, and we are going to keep working with energy and humility."

Leftist senator Jose Antonio Gomez acknowledged "this is the first time that Concertacion has confronted such an adverse scenario," but he stressed: "I believe we will win in the second round."


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