Conservative ex-President Pinera easily wins Chile election

Billionaire former President Sebastian Pinera easily won Chile’s presidential runoff election Sunday, moving the world’s top-copper producing country back to the right in the footsteps of other Latin American nations.

Pinera got 54.6 percent of the votes to 45.4 percent for center-left Sen. Alejandro Guillier, with nearly all the ballots counted.

Analysts had expected a much closer race, but there had not been any opinion polls on the campaign for several weeks. Guillier conceded a “severe defeat” to his supporters, and outgoing President Michelle Bachelet called Pinera to offer congratulations.

The results prompted Pinera supporters to celebrate in streets nationwide waving flags and holding banners, while others beeped car horns and screamed out the last name of the former airline magnate who previously governed Chile in 2010-2014.

“Today the voice of all Chileans has been heard,” Pinera told supporters. “We welcome this triumph with humility and hope.”

Pinera, 68, won last month’s first round, but his 36.6 percent vote share fell far short of what polls had projected. Guillier got 22.7 percent in the first round and was counting on support from backers of other left-leaning candidates who were eliminated.

Guillier, 64, was backed by Bachelet, but many Chileans have been disillusioned by lagging economic growth under her watch, 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.

Guillier, a former TV anchor, had vowed to continue Bachelet’s plan to increase corporate taxes to partly finance an education overhaul, reform the constitution and improve the pension and health care system.

Pinera’s resounding victory underscored the fracture at 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. The conservative politician 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 for the country of 17 million people.

“This is a huge victory for him,” said Javier Sajuria, a lecturer in politics at Queen Mary University of London. “Pinera managed to gather a big majority of the votes from center-left candidates (in the first round of the election). What happened here is that Pinera managed to mobilize non-voters in a way that we haven’t seen since voluntary voting was started.”

Turnout was expected to be low because in contrast to other regional countries, Chile made voting voluntary rather than mandatory in 2012.

In recent weeks, Pinera had compared Guillier to Nicolas Maduro, the president of crisis-torn Venezuela. At first, the scare tactic seemed to have backfired 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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