Conservative billionaire businessman Piñera is elected president of Chile

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 18, 2010

Sebastian Piñera, a conservative billionaire businessman, won the presidency of Chile on Sunday, ending a generation of rule by a center-left coalition that had overseen the transformation of the country of 17 million into Latin America's most politically stable and economically dynamic.

With nearly all the ballots counted, Piñera, 60, took nearly 52 percent of the vote. Eduardo Frei, 67, a former president and member of the ruling Concertacion coalition, won 48.3 percent.

President Michelle Bachelet placed a phone call to Piñera to congratulate him.

"The people today have elected you democratically," she said in a conversation carried on Chilean media. "I hope that Chile can continue along the path of justice and social progress that we have followed during these 20 years."

Political analysts say Piñera will stay on the same free-market course pursued by Concertacion leaders while maintaining popular social programs that have given Chile Latin America's lowest poverty rate.

In a victory speech, Piñera said he is ready to work with the opposition.

"We will have a government of national unity that will build bridges and break down walls that divide," he said. "We will have a government close to the people, well versed in their problems and committed to finding solutions."

Still, in a country where the memory of Gen. Augusto Pinochet and his brutal military rule remains fresh for many, Piñera's victory was seen as a shift to the right.

In recent days, Frei and his supporters had increasingly warned that a vote for Piñera was akin to supporting the Chilean right that had been a pillar during Pinochet's 1973-to-1990 dictatorship. Last month, a judge determined that Frei's father, Eduardo Frei Montalva, had been fatally poisoned by Pinochet's henchmen in 1981.

Piñera was forced to admit that some supporters "committed errors" by overlooking crimes during the dictatorship. He pledged not to name former Pinochet-era officials to his cabinet, although some of his campaign aides held important posts in Pinochet's government.

"One of the main reasons I opposed the military government was because I knew human rights were being violated," Piñera said during a recent television debate with Frei, according to Reuters. "We won't have ministers from the military government in our cabinet."

Piñera is expected to maintain close ties with the United States, unlike the leaders of several other leftist governments in Latin America, notably in Bolivia, Nicaragua and oil-rich Venezuela.

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