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Monday, 6 December, 1999, 18:13 GMT
Tight presidential race in Chile
Chileans go to the polls on 12 December


by James Reynolds in Santiago

Chileans face the third presidential election since the end of General Augusto Pinochet's military government a decade ago - and the first that looks like being a close race.

There are six candidates in the contest to succeed President Eduardo Frei.

But only two have a chance of victory: Ricardo Lagos, 61, from the ruling centre-left coalition, and Joaquin Lavin, 46, from the right-wing Alliance for Chile.

Ricardo Lagos is one of the most experienced politicians in Chile. He is a former government minister has spent much of the past decade campaigning for the presidency.

Mr Lagos is an economist who first came to prominence as a supporter of the Marxist President Salvador Allende in the early 1970s.

Ricardo Lagos Presidential candidate, Ricardo Lagos
He went on to become one of the most outspoken opponents of General Augusto Pinochet's military regime. which ruled Chile between 1973 and 1990.

Ricardo Lagos secured his place in Chilean political legend during a 1988 television debate held before the referendum to decide whether Augusto Pinochet should remain in office.

During the debate, Mr Lagos pointed his finger at the camera and accused General Pinochet of torture and murder.

This was the first time in Chile that Augusto Pinochet had been challenged so openly.

Unexpected challenge

Until recently, Ricardo Lagos had been expected to win this election with considerable ease. He has run a fairly leisurely campaign.

However, he now faces a serious challenge from Joaquin Lavin, whose chances of winning this election had - until now - looked remote.

Mr Lavin has been seen as out of his depth and too closely linked to General Pinochet.

But then Mr Lavin changed the style of his campaign. He resigned as mayor of a wealthy district of Santiago and began a tour of Chile.

He stayed at the homes of poor families, dressed in regional costumes and ignored his links with the right-wing.

He stressed his experience as mayor in addressing everyday problems. Slowly, his popularity began to rise.

Mr Lavin has also benefited from a widespread disappointment with the performance of the ruling coalition, which came to power 10 years ago.

Chile is now going through its first recession in almost 20 years. Most people here blame the government for the economy's poor performance.

The Pinochet factor

Both Joaquin Lavin and Ricardo Lagos have done their best not to mention General Pinochet during this campaign.

Each candidate is keen to be viewed as a man of the future. In Chile, any reference to General Pinochet is widely seen as a reference to the past.

Opinion polls show that the predicament of General Pinochet is of little concern to the electorate. The General is under house arrest in Britain while he awaits the outcome of his appeal against a Spanish extradition order.

Chileans say that they are more concerned with issues such as crime, education and health care.

Mr Lagos and Mr Lavin have focused on these issues. They have left the Pinochet case to the Communist Party candidate, Gladys Marin. She is expected to win around five percent of the vote.

Close Race

Opinion polls show there is very little to separate Ricardo Lagos and Joaquin Lavin.

Their supporters have been engaged in intensive last-minute campaigning to try to gain an advantage.

Along the Alameda, Santiago's main avenue, Lavin and Lagos supporters drive waving flags and playing campaign jingles.

Posters showing Ricardo Lagos with his arms outstretched over the slogan "Growth with Equality" have been pasted up across the city.

They compete for space with posters of a smiling Joaquin Lavin and his slogan "Long Live Change".

Apathy

Despite the candidates' efforts, there is considerable apathy among Chilean voters.

The optimism, which greeted the return to democracy a decade ago, has been replaced by disillusionment. For many, democracy has failed to deliver the happiness promised when the military government ended.

Voting is compulsory in Chile. However, many say that they will abstain or spoil their ballot paper.

If the opinion polls are correct, neither Ricardo Lagos nor Joaquin Lavin will secure more than 50% of the vote when elections take place on December 12th.

It is likely that the two leading candidates will end up in a run-off to be held on January 16th.
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See also:
23 Oct 98 |  The Pinochet file
Re-opening the wounds of the past
30 May 99 |  Americas
Chile primary vote begins
18 Nov 98 |  Americas
Chilean politician says country must turn its back on Pinochet
31 Jul 98 |  Americas
Chile ministers resign

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