Right-wing millionaire Sebastian Pinera gets historic win in Chile

Billionaire Sebastian Pinera won Chile`s presidency Sunday in the country`s first democratic election of a right-wing ruler in 52 years, and vowed to make Chile "the best country in the world."

Santiago: Billionaire Sebastian Pinera won Chile`s presidency Sunday in the country`s first democratic election of a right-wing ruler in 52 years, and vowed to make Chile "the best country in the world."

Pinera`s triumph over former President Eduardo Frei ended more than two decades of rule by the center-left coalition that followed Augusto Pinochet`s brutal dictatorship, and marked a tilt to the right on a continent dominated by leftist governments.

In a victory speech that invoked the calls to service of US presidents John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama, Pinera vowed to hire the "best, most prepared, most honest and most dedicated" people for his government, and called on a new generation of Chileans to meet his challenge.

"Chile isn`t the biggest, richest or most powerful country in the world, but we should dedicate ourselves to transforming it into the best country in the world," he said. "We don`t have a single minute to lose."

Pinera earned 52 percent of the votes to 48 percent for Frei with 99 percent of the ballots counted in Sunday`s runoff election.

Pinera — who ran on a platform of creating jobs and boosting economic growth in the world`s top copper producer — asked for unity and dialogue with his opponents, saying "we need not only a good government but a good opposition, working constructively to build a better country."

Frei had warm words for Pinera but credited outgoing President Michelle Bachelet and the ruling coalition for making Chile "much better than the country we received in 1990."

Frei, who remains a senator, also vowed to be "guardians of liberty and of all our social victories" while the right wing is in power.

Pinera`s lead narrowed after Frei and Bachelet repeatedly invoked the legacy of Pinochet, stirring fears of a retreat on human rights if the parties that supported the dictatorship regain power.

But after two decades with the same politicians in power, many leftists have become disenchanted with the government, enabling the right wing to win at the voting booth for the first time since Jorge Allesandri Rodriguez won the presidency in 1958.

"The people have democratically elected you to be president of the republic, and I hope that Chile can continue on the path of justice and social progress that we have developed during these 20 years," Bachelet told Pinera in a nationally televised telephone call.

Pinera responded by asking for her help "to continue many of the good things that have been done during your government, and of course to confront other challenges."

Pinera promised to create a million jobs and double Chile`s per-capita annual income of USD 12,000 by expanding growth to 6 percent a year.

But the candidates agreed on most issues — a reflection of the remarkable economic, social and political success that has given Bachelet nearly 80 percent approval ratings — and analysts predicted Pinera would make no radical moves to shake up this consensus.

The biggest change may be in foreign affairs.

Bachelet tried to defuse tensions with Chile`s neighbors, putting Bolivia`s long-held desire for access to the sea on their bilateral agenda and avoiding direct criticism of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

But Pinera, a friend of Colombia`s conservative President Alvaro Uribe, has been more outspoken, criticizing populism as a failed approach. Pinera said Venezuela "is not a democracy," Cuba is a "dictatorship" and he vowed never to concede Chilean territory.

With Congress evenly divided, Pinera will need leftists to get anything done, and for the first time since Pinochet`s 1973 coup, this includes several Communist Party lawmakers whose votes could become key tiebreakers.

Pinera put his Harvard University Ph.D. in economics to use popularizing credit cards in Chile, growing a fortune that now includes a large share of Chile`s main airline, a leading television channel and the country`s most popular soccer team.

At 60, he still enjoys risky sports, from paragliding to scuba-diving, rafting and piloting his own helicopter. Always on the move, he laughs off nervous tics that include shrugging his shoulders, pressing his lips and rocking his head from side to side, once confessing that he buys clothes two sizes too big to feel more comfortable.

This was his second run for the presidency — he lost by nearly 7 points to Bachelet in 2006, and has remained in permanent campaign mode since then.

Other promises include privatizing 20 percent of state-owned Codelco, the world`s biggest copper producer, and hiring 10,000 new police officers and pushing for renewable energy and improvements in public education.

Socially, he said he would expand legal rights for gay and lesbian couples, but draw the line against same-sex marriage or adoption. He`s also against euthanasia and abortion, which remains illegal in all cases in Chile.

Bureau Report