By Juan Forero
Sunday, January 17, 2010; A19
Whether a billionaire businessman or a former president wins Chile's presidential election Sunday, the outcome will reflect a broader trend in Latin America -- the rise of the pragmatic centrist.
After years of victories by leftist candidates, market-friendly moderates are gaining ground in the region.
Some are emerging from the right, such as Sebastian Piñera, 60, an airline magnate who has held a razor-thin lead in the polls ahead of Chile's runoff vote.
Political analysts say that Piñera and the ruling coalition candidate, Eduardo Frei, 67, who was president from 1994 to 2000, differ in style but not markedly in the substance of their proposals. Irrespective of whom voters choose, Chile is unlikely to veer from the centrist, free-market path that has brought the nation prosperity since the end of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship in 1990.
Political analysts say the right is not making a comeback in Latin America, where a mix of leftist rabble-rousers and European-style socialists have taken power since a bombastic former army colonel, Hugo Chávez, won office in Venezuela in 1998 by pledging to overturn the old political order.
Instead, voters are showing a preference for moderates rather than firebrand nationalists who preach class warfare and state intervention in the economy, according to political analysts and recent polls.
"Voters are more calculating and rational than we give them credit for," said Christopher Sabatini, senior policy director at the Council of the Americas in New York. "People are making the choice to support market economies and rational leaders."
In Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, a supermarket-chain owner with close ties to the United States, won the presidency in May. In Brazil, the popular governor of Sao Paulo state, José Serra, enjoys a solid lead in the polls over his more left-leaning rival ahead of October's presidential election. Polls show the winner in Costa Rica's election next month will probably be the ruling party's Laura Chinchilla, who is expected to closely hew to the current government's market-friendly policies.
A notable exception is Bolivia, where President Evo Morales was reelected in December. He has expelled U.S. counter-drug agents, nationalized part of the mining sector and forged ties with Chávez, whose antagonism toward Washington has been a cornerstone of his nearly 11-year-old presidency.
But two prominent leftists who won office last year -- former rebel José "Pepe" Mujica in Uruguay and Mauricio Funes, head of a party that was born out of the guerrilla movement in El Salvador -- have highlighted middle-of-the-road policies.
They say they are inspired by the region's most admired moderate, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. A former union activist, Lula is known for his innovative anti-poverty programs and a cautious oversight of the economy that has won Wall Street approval.
"The Latin American voter wants refrigerators and washing machines -- they want prosperity," said Marta Lagos, director of Chile's Latinobarometro polling company, which surveys political attitudes in 18 Latin American countries. "They have abandoned the ideological flag."
Latinobarometro's polling shows that 43 percent of Latin Americans surveyed called themselves centrist in 2008, compared with 35 percent in 1996. In 2008, 22 percent said they were leftists and 17 percent identified themselves as hailing from the right. And in a poll released in December, 59 percent said a market economy is best for their country.
The December poll also shows that Chávez has a 27 percent approval rating among Latin Americans, the lowest of any leader.
Half of Venezuelans still support Chávez, according to a recent Datanalisis poll. But most give him low marks in tackling the country's biggest problems, including a spiraling rate of homicides and Latin America's highest inflation rate.
Voters across the region have shown themselves willing to punish ideologically oriented populists who fail to bring improvements.
In Argentina, as the economy has sputtered, critics have accused President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of heavy-handed policies that have hurt the powerful agriculture sector and the middle class, such as the nationalization of the pension system. In June, voters gave control of Congress to the opposition, leaving Fernández de Kirchner severely weakened ahead of national elections next year.
Chile, with a population of 17 million, stands apart in its success in delivering high growth over a generation and in dramatically lowering poverty.
Yet fatigue with the ruling Concertacion coalition had given Piñera, the businessman, a slight lead in the polls in recent weeks, said Michael Shifter, a senior policy analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.
Piñera has pledged to use the expertise he honed in the business world to create 1 million jobs and to make the government more efficient. But Shifter said Piñera has also kept an eye on centrist voters who support the current government's social programs.
"Even Sebastian Piñera is going to continue with the social policies," Shifter said. "He's said so."