Page last updated at 16:17 GMT, Monday, 27 October 2008

Chile's right-wing gains electoral ground

By Gideon Long
BBC News, Santiago

The last time the political right won a general election in Chile, the country's current president Michelle Bachelet was six years old.

President Michelle Bachelet (right) at La Moneda government palace after Sunday's elections
Bachelet (r) is constitutionally barred from seeking another term

The year was 1958. Since then, the only right-wing leader Chile has known is General Augusto Pinochet, who seized power by force in 1973 and ruled for 17 years.

But now the right appears to be gaining ground again.

It made advances in local elections here on Sunday, and hopes to translate them into success in next year's presidential poll.

For the first time, the right now has more mayors in office than Ms Bachelet's ruling coalition. It also closed the gap slightly in terms of its overall percentage of votes.

If it does win next year, it will mark the end of an era for Chile - the end of nearly two decades of moderate left-wing rule in which the country has emerged from the Pinochet years, healed some of the wounds of its dark past and re-established its democratic credentials.

"There is a feeling of political change in the country, without a doubt," says Guillermo Holzmann, professor of political science at the University of Chile in Santiago.

"There's a feeling that the ruling coalition has been in power for a long time and that maybe inefficiency and corruption is increasing as a result."

When Gen Pinochet stepped down in 1990, the leftist coalition known as the Concertacion took power in Chile and has served four successive terms under four different presidents. But its seeming invincibility is under threat.

Leadership battle

Sunday's local polls were a major test of the changing sentiment. The right wing Alianza (Alliance for Chile) won mayoral contests in a number of key cities while the Concertacion's overall share of the vote fell by around two percentage points.

Sebastian Pinera (left), Santiago's mayor-elect Pablo Zalaquett (centre) and Joaquin Lavin (right) celebrate election succes
Sebastian Pinera (left) will be hoping to build on Sunday's success

The Concertacion remains the largest bloc in Chilean politics, but it has no obvious candidate to stand as president.

Under the constitution, President Bachelet is barred from seeking a second successive term, and her coalition faces a potentially damaging leadership battle over the coming year.

In contrast, the right-wing opposition has largely united behind billionaire businessman Sebastian Pinera, who narrowly lost to Ms Bachelet in 2006.

The 58-year-old, who has been likened to Italy's Silvio Berlusconi for his wealth and media interests, is now widely viewed as the front-runner to be Chile's next president.

As they went to the municipal polls on Sunday, Chileans were divided about the Bachelet government's record.

"I think it's been good for Chile to have a woman in charge. It's changed the culture of the country," shop worker Lorena Villalon said as she cast her vote in a suburb of Santiago.

"But her government hasn't achieved as much as I'd hoped it would. There's been too much squabbling between the parties in government, too much politics."

Part of the problem is that the Concertacion was put together to challenge Gen Pinochet in the late 1980s. Now that he is dead and democracy is re-established, the Concertacion has slightly lost its raison d'etre.

Ms Bachelet's personal approval ratings have remained fairly high - 42% according to the most recent survey published by Adimark, a leading Chilean polling company.

She has a warm, easy touch with ordinary people and has worked hard on social issues like schooling and childcare.

But the same Adimark poll put her government's approval rating at just 26.4%, with a disapproval rating of 59.1%.

Boom no more

Crime and corruption have emerged as major issues, and in the capital Santiago - home to over one-third of the electorate - voters are still fuming over the disastrous implementation of a new transport system, which made life miserable for thousands of commuters.

This is an extremely conservative country and I'm not sure it will want a handover of political power in the middle of a major crisis
Marta Lagos
Mori, Chile

Economically, Chile has enjoyed two and a half years of brisk growth under President Bachelet, thanks largely to a boom in the price of its chief export, copper, which accounts for over half of its export revenue.

But the price of copper has halved in the space of four months amid the global financial crisis. Banks are cutting back on credit and the value of Chilean pensions has been hit hard by the fall in world stock markets.

Ironically though, an economic downturn could help Ms Bachelet's coalition cling to power next year, persuading voters to stick with what they know rather than opting for change.

"This is an extremely conservative country and I'm not sure it will want a handover of political power in the middle of a major crisis," said Marta Lagos, managing director of pollsters Mori in Chile.

In assessing the results of Sunday's municipal polls, President Bachelet acknowledged the need for her coalition to rejuvenate itself before next year's polls, and to end the bickering between its constituent parties.

"It has to renew itself, listen to the voice from the street, to update its message and bring new dynamism to its policies It's clear that what it needs is more unity, more unity, more unity," she said.

For his part, Mr Pinera hailed the local results as a "great triumph" for his coalition and evidence that Chileans are ready for a change.

Only when Chileans go to the polls again in December 2009 will it become clear if he is right or not.

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