News ID: 206352
Published: 0310 GMT December 17, 2017

Votes in bitterly divisive presidential election

Votes in bitterly divisive presidential election

Voters across Chile began casting ballots in a tight presidential runoff Sunday morning, choosing between a center-left candidate and a billionaire former president, and deciding whether to reverse years of economic and political overhauls.

The election pits Alejandro Guillier, 64, a journalist and sociologist of the center-left coalition New Majority, against former President Sebastián Piñera, 68, of the rightist Chile Vamos. Mr. Guillier favors continuing the changes put in place by the current president, Michelle Bachelet, while Mr. Piñera hopes to roll them back, reported.

The two candidates were neck and neck in recent opinion polls, a somewhat surprising turn of events given the results of the first round of the election, on Nov. 19. Mr. Piñera obtained 36 percent of votes that day, compared with 22 percent for Mr. Guillier; 20 percent for Beatriz Sánchez, of the leftist coalition Frente Amplio that was founded early this year; and 8 percent for José Antonio Kast, a far-right champion of the Pinochet dictatorship.

The top two contenders in the first round, where turnout was below 50 percent, were eligible for the runoff. They have spent the past few weeks trying to reach out to voters on extreme ends of the political spectrum, in addition to voters closer to the center.

Chile’s presidential election is the first in a series that will alter the political trajectory of Latin America. Voters in Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay will elect presidents in 2018.

“Chile is helping kick off a year of important elections throughout the region, and many of the divides seen there will be repeated in their own way in the races to come,” said Shannon K. O’Neil, a Latin America expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Today’s election pits not just the left versus right for the presidency, but also reflects a lighter version of the insider-outsider drama that is developing in Colombia, Mexico and Brazil.”

Although Mr. Guillier did not include all of Frente Amplio’s demands in his platform, many of the coalition’s top leaders have said they would vote for him to prevent a conservative, pro-business Piñera presidency that would roll back what they see as social gains over the past few years.

Under Ms. Bachelet’s leadership, taxes on large corporations were raised to finance free higher education for low-income students; abortion in some circumstances was legalized; union rights were strengthened; and a new electoral system allowed minority parties and independent politicians greater representation in Congress.

Ms. Bachelet also set in motion overhauls to replace the Pinochet-era Constitution and change the private pension system.

“Bachelet unlocked the constraints put in place during dictatorship and the years of transition,” said Roxana Pey, a spokeswoman and coordinator for Mr. Guillier. “Her reforms have made Chile more democratic and fair, and have inaugurated a new political period in our country, in which people have more rights and participation in decision-making. Guillier will continue this legacy.”

But much of this, according to the Piñera camp, has scared off investors and sent Chile’s economy on a downward spiral. Mr. Piñera has called the government “irresponsible and incompetent” for multiplying the public debt, and he has promised to reverse some of these changes and to jump-start the economy by reducing state bureaucracy, offering incentives to investors, reducing taxes on corporate earnings and spending more on infrastructure projects.

But Mr. Piñera has also hardened his line to cater to the far-right followers of Mr. Kast. He has vowed to halt the same-sex marriage bill Ms. Bachelet introduced, and wants to improve conditions for military officers imprisoned for crimes against humanity.



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