Right-wing candidates have been winning races across Latin America lately, and with Chile’s economy sagging, conservative billionaire Sebastián Piñera appears headed for a return to power in the presidential election scheduled for November.
But Piñera, who led Chile from 2010 to 2014, may be at risk of running into one of the other prevailing forces in global politics: an antiestablishment upsurge, which could benefit his likely opponent, leftist senator and former news anchor Alejandro Guillier.
The campaign will be closely watched in the coming months. Chile is one of Latin America’s leading economies, and the country is often held up as an example of clean, technocratic governance.
With their campaigns not yet official, Piñera and Guillier are polling virtually even. That alone is no small feat for Guillier, 64, an independent and relative political newcomer with little support from Chile’s established parties. With Piñera nagged by accusations of unscrupulous business deals and conflicts of interest, Guillier could pull off an upset, analysts say.
“If economic growth isn’t the central theme of the election, and it becomes a referendum on the establishment and Chile’s political class, then the winner will be Guillier,” said Roberto Méndez, president of GFK Adimark, a leading pollster.
After a decade during which leftists dominated South American elections, right-wing candidates have won the presidency in Argentina and Peru, with conservatives also faring well in Brazil’s recent municipal contests.
Piñera promises to restore the sheen to the so-called Chilean model, a message that has broad appeal at a time when the country’s current government, led by leftist President Michelle Bachelet, has been plumbing the depths of voter disapproval. Hobbled by scandals, stumbles and natural disasters including Chile’s worst-ever wildfires, the once-popular Bachelet saw her approval rating slump to 23 percent in GFK Adimark’s February survey.
Guillier, 64, won a senate seat in 2013 after a long career on Chile’s nightly news, during which he was often rated by audiences as the country’s most trusted broadcaster. “It’s as if Walter Cronkite decided to run for office,” Méndez said.
The biggest knock on him, analysts say, is that he’s untested and hasn’t laid out a plan for change. And though Guillier is not part of the Bachelet government, he hasn’t broken with her either.
“Guillier has a very narrow path to victory,” said political analyst Ascanio Cavallo. “This election is going to be very difficult for the center-left because of what it’s inherited from the current government.”
Piñera, 67, appeals with a message akin to “make Chile great again” — albeit less as a matter of nationalism than one of managerial competence and efficiency. With an estimated $2.7 billion fortune from investments in banking, airlines and other industries, Piñera may be the only politician in the Americas whose wealth could rival President Trump’s.
Piñera ended his first term with mixed ratings, but he won high marks for his handling of an 8.8-magnitude earthquake in 2010 and for freeing 33 trapped miners whose plight captured the world’s attention that year. Chile’s system does not allow presidents to serve consecutive terms.
Anger at the government’s handling of this year’s wildfires, which have killed at least 11 people and scorched more than a million acres, has translated into support for a leader who can steer the country through a crisis.
One of Chile’s wealthiest men, Piñera is viewed as a center-right moderate and not a figure associated with the hard-right conservatism of the country’s 1973-1990 military dictatorship. Yet Piñera became the target of student rage at the end of his first presidency, when huge street protests challenged the country’s neo-liberal economic model.
Those demonstrations helped in the electoral victory of Bachelet, who had served as Chile’s first female president from 2006 to 2010. But her current term has been far rockier, and a corruption scandal involving her son and daughter-in-law seems to have irreparably damaged her public image.
Her proposals for sweeping changes to Chile’s tax codes and public education system have come up short.
Bachelet is so unpopular that former president Ricardo Lagos, who finished his term in 2006 with high marks, has fallen far behind Guillier as the candidate of the center-left in the current race, because he’s viewed as close to the government.
“What’s in crisis is the left, here just as everywhere,” said Cavallo. “They don’t have a plan, other than to expand welfare benefits and the size of the state, even when resources aren’t available to do it.”
Piñera appeals to Chileans who think the country has gone off the rails and needs to return to the laissez-faire formula credited for decades of growth. Chile’s economy has been expanding at roughly 2 percent in recent years, about half as fast as it did a decade ago, when South America’s commodity exports were booming.
Piñera made a fortune during those years, but now his biggest liability may be his sprawling investment portfolio.
He has come under fire in recent months for revelations that his family invested in a Peruvian fishing company that may have benefited from maritime accords Piñera negotiated while in office. His defenders counter that the investments were made through a blind trust.
Prosecutors say they also are looking at claims that Piñera’s government blocked a hydroelectric plant, the construction of which would have affected his stake in a mining company.
Piñera has not faced any charges and denies any wrongdoing, accusing Chile’s Communist Party of mounting a “dirty campaign” to keep him out of office.
Still, analysts say the current anti-establishment political climate leaves voters especially sensitive to claims of impropriety, and Piñera will pay a steep price if the accusations linger.
With no other leading figure on the right aside from Piñera, the beneficiary of voter dissatisfaction would be Guillier. His many years on television make him a familiar, likable figure to many Chileans, and he is not viewed as part of the country’s political and business elite.
In perhaps the clearest sign that the race will be Piñera’s to lose, 45 percent of the 1,051 Chileans who responded to Adimark’s February survey said they expected Piñera to win, regardless of whether they planned to vote for him or not. Only 28 percent predicted a victory for Guillier.