SANTIAGO, Chile – Former President Sebastian Pinera’s resounding victory in a presidential runoff election swings Chile back to the right and highlights the increasing number of conservative leaders who have won power in Latin America.
With nearly all ballots counted, the billionaire won 54.6 percent of the votes Sunday to 45.4 percent for former journalist and center-left Sen. Alejandro Guillier. Analysts had predicted a much closer contest, feeling Guillier had gained ground, although there had not been any opinion polls since the election’s first round in November.
Pinera, who ran on a platform of boosting sluggish economic growth in the world’s top copper producer, thanked his opponents and called for unity.
“Today the voice of all Chileans has been heard,” Pinera told supporters Sunday night. “We welcome this triumph with humility and hope.”
The results prompted celebrations by Pinera’s supporters across the country of 17 million people. Some people waved flags and held banners, while others beeped car horns and yelled out the last name of the former airline magnate who also was president in 2010-2014.
Pinera, 68, won last month’s first round, but fell far short of what polls had projected. Turnout had been expected to be low for the runoff because in contrast to other regional countries, Chile made voting voluntary rather than mandatory in 2012.
“Pinera managed to gather a big majority of the votes from center-left candidates” who were in the opening round, said Javier Sajuria, a lecturer in politics at Queen Mary University of London. “What happened here is that Pinera managed to mobilize non-voters in a way that we haven’t seen since voluntary voting was started.”
Guillier, 64, had received the support of current President Michelle Bachelet, and had vowed to continue her plan to increase corporate taxes to partly finance an education overhaul, reform the constitution and improve the pension and health care system.
But many Chileans have been disillusioned by lagging economic growth during Bachelet’s administration, a problem based largely on lower international prices for copper, which is the backbone of Chile’s economy. Many also feel she wavered on her promises of profound social changes in labor and education and the vote was largely seen as a referendum on her policies.
Pinera’s triumph underscored the fractures in Bachelet’s New Majority left-wing coalition and the rise of conservative leaders at the ballot box in recent years in other regional countries, including Argentina, Paraguay and Peru.
During his first term as president, Pinera struggled with large protests over Chile’s inequality and demands for education reform and left office with low popularity ratings. But he also oversaw annual economic growth of about 5 percent a year.
He now proposes to slash taxes on business to revive growth and vows to launch a $14 billion, four-year spending plan that includes fresh investments in infrastructure.
In recent weeks, Pinera had compared Guillier to Nicolas Maduro, the socialist president of crisis-torn Venezuela. At first, that tactic seemed to backfire by rallying support for Guillier from hard-left factions that had been cool on him earlier.
“Fear can be tricky because it tends to demobilize voters,” Sajuria said. “But he managed it pretty well … my impression is that people who were afraid of the outcome voted for him.”
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