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Change Chile can believe in?

Could Chile’s political right return to power after two decades in the wilderness? That’s the question hanging over Santiago, the capital, as Chileans head to the polls today to vote in a runoff presidential election between Eduardo Frei, the moderate former president backed by the ruling center-left coalition, and Sebastian Piñera (left), the billionaire businessman ...

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Chilean presidential candidate Sebastian Pinera of the National Renewal party celebrates on stage during a rally in Valparaiso, some 120 km West of Santiago, on January 14, 2010. Pinera, a conservative billionaire, will face leftist ex-president Eduardo Frei, in a run-off elections next January 17 to succeed President Michelle Bachelet. AFP PHOTO MARTIN BERNETTI (Photo credit should read MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images)

Could Chile’s political right return to power after two decades in the wilderness?

That’s the question hanging over Santiago, the capital, as Chileans head to the polls today to vote in a runoff presidential election between Eduardo Frei, the moderate former president backed by the ruling center-left coalition, and Sebastian Piñera (left), the billionaire businessman backed by the right. Piñera won the first round with 44 percent of the vote to Frei’s 30 percent, but the latest poll shows the race tightening in recent weeks. It’s now a tossup, and nobody can say for sure who’s going to win.

The New York Times has a good primer on the election here, but I think it doesn’t quite capture one intriguing aspect of the campaign — for a country that has only recently emerged from dictatorship, it’s a surprisingly low-key contest. You don’t see many signs for the candidates on the streets, and coverage in the newspapers has been overshadowed by the crisis in Haiti, where Chile has a few hundred peacekeeping troops. One obvious reason is Frei, who isn’t exactly the most inspirational figure and is best remembered here for presiding over a nasty economic downturn when the Asian crisis struck Chile in the late 1990s. But another reason is that the candidates aren’t as different as you might think.

In Frei’s last campaign rally in La Granja, a lower-class neighborhood to the south of Santiago, he spoke obliquely, but at length about his coalition’s role in ousting Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the rightist dictator who ruled Chile with an iron fist for 17 years after overthrowing Marxist President Salvador Allende in a military coup on Sept. 11, 1973. Last Monday, current president and Socialist Party leader Michelle Bachelet opened the Museum of Memory, a monument to the more than 3,000 people killed, and the nearly 30,000 tortured during Pinochet’s regime. Many on the right — a significant chunk of which still supports Pinochet — saw the timing of the museum’s opening as politically motivated. But just how much Chileans are still voting with Pinochet in mind is an open question.

My hunch is that Piñera — who is running on the slogan “participate in change” — has the better instincts here, but he carries some baggage of his own. His brother José was Pinochet’s labor minister and led the neoliberal reform of Chile’s pension system. In 2004, José, now a fellow at Washington’s libertarian Cato Institute, penned a New York Times op-ed supporting  George W. Bush’s efforts to privatize Social Security, touting Chile as a model; two years later, his brother, running in 2006 against Bachelet, vowed to overhaul the pension system and said it required “deep reforms in all sectors.”

For all the seeming drama of a rightist return to power, I suspect there’s less room for radical change than many Piñera opponents here fear. After all, the four center-left governments that succeeded Pinochet never really overhauled his free-market economic program, choosing instead to tinker around the margins and focusing on infrastructure development and expanding social welfare programs. This blend of left and right is clearly working; last week, Chile became the first South American nation to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, marking the country’s arrival as a developed state. And the country has weathered the economic crisis better than most, with a projected GDP growth rate of 4 percent in 2010 after a mild downturn in 2009. If something’s not broken, why fix it?

UPDATE: Pinera wins. More in a bit…

AFP/Getty Images

Could Chile’s political right return to power after two decades in the wilderness?

That’s the question hanging over Santiago, the capital, as Chileans head to the polls today to vote in a runoff presidential election between Eduardo Frei, the moderate former president backed by the ruling center-left coalition, and Sebastian Piñera (left), the billionaire businessman backed by the right. Piñera won the first round with 44 percent of the vote to Frei’s 30 percent, but the latest poll shows the race tightening in recent weeks. It’s now a tossup, and nobody can say for sure who’s going to win.

The New York Times has a good primer on the election here, but I think it doesn’t quite capture one intriguing aspect of the campaign — for a country that has only recently emerged from dictatorship, it’s a surprisingly low-key contest. You don’t see many signs for the candidates on the streets, and coverage in the newspapers has been overshadowed by the crisis in Haiti, where Chile has a few hundred peacekeeping troops. One obvious reason is Frei, who isn’t exactly the most inspirational figure and is best remembered here for presiding over a nasty economic downturn when the Asian crisis struck Chile in the late 1990s. But another reason is that the candidates aren’t as different as you might think.

In Frei’s last campaign rally in La Granja, a lower-class neighborhood to the south of Santiago, he spoke obliquely, but at length about his coalition’s role in ousting Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the rightist dictator who ruled Chile with an iron fist for 17 years after overthrowing Marxist President Salvador Allende in a military coup on Sept. 11, 1973. Last Monday, current president and Socialist Party leader Michelle Bachelet opened the Museum of Memory, a monument to the more than 3,000 people killed, and the nearly 30,000 tortured during Pinochet’s regime. Many on the right — a significant chunk of which still supports Pinochet — saw the timing of the museum’s opening as politically motivated. But just how much Chileans are still voting with Pinochet in mind is an open question.

My hunch is that Piñera — who is running on the slogan “participate in change” — has the better instincts here, but he carries some baggage of his own. His brother José was Pinochet’s labor minister and led the neoliberal reform of Chile’s pension system. In 2004, José, now a fellow at Washington’s libertarian Cato Institute, penned a New York Times op-ed supporting  George W. Bush’s efforts to privatize Social Security, touting Chile as a model; two years later, his brother, running in 2006 against Bachelet, vowed to overhaul the pension system and said it required “deep reforms in all sectors.”

For all the seeming drama of a rightist return to power, I suspect there’s less room for radical change than many Piñera opponents here fear. After all, the four center-left governments that succeeded Pinochet never really overhauled his free-market economic program, choosing instead to tinker around the margins and focusing on infrastructure development and expanding social welfare programs. This blend of left and right is clearly working; last week, Chile became the first South American nation to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, marking the country’s arrival as a developed state. And the country has weathered the economic crisis better than most, with a projected GDP growth rate of 4 percent in 2010 after a mild downturn in 2009. If something’s not broken, why fix it?

UPDATE: Pinera wins. More in a bit…

AFP/Getty Images