SANTIAGO, Chile – With no internal competition and a fractured camp on the other side of the ideological spectrum, former Chilean leader Sebastián Piñera holds the lead in the earliest of presidential polls before this November’s election.
Less than a month ago, Piñera finally announced his candidacy for the presidency after being away from the nation’s top political office since 2014. The announcement came after months of speculation during which the former leader never denied or confirmed the rumors of his return despite requests for clarification by journalists and political allies.
Piñera, a billionaire businessman, led Chile from 2010 to 2014 on behalf of the center-right National Renewal party (and the center-right to right-wing Alliance for Chile coalition). He left office with very low approval numbers.
When he left the Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago, he said that he would not be seeking a return to the presidency in the near future (and he did not seek another term in 2014 as immediate re-election is barred by the Chilean Constitution).
As the electoral campaign neared, however, political pundits threw his name into the ring as a possible candidate given his standing as the most prominent politician of the center-right, which was already lacking in any viable candidates.
Thus, the conservative Alliance for Chile coalition, now known by the name of Chile Vamos (Let’s Go, Chile), overlooked his generally negative administration as they found in him the only high-profile candidate.
“Today, I announce my decision to present my candidacy for the President of the Republic of Chile,” the 67-year-old Piñera said at a large event in Santiago late last month that was attended by several hundred people including his party colleagues and supporters.
While he postured himself as the top figure of the opposition, he was handed a favor by the ruling center-left to left-wing New Majority. The coalition showed very little support to center-left Party of Democracy (PPD) man Ricardo Lagos, another former president (2000-2006) and highly respected political figure, and Lagos retired his candidacy in an act that pundits say will harm the New Majority’s favorability among undecided Chileans.
Instead, the New Majority decided to throw most of its support behind Alejandro Guillier, a respected journalist and radio/television political commentator that is technically an independent but is allied with the center-left Social Democrat Radical Party. Guillier has been serving as a Senator for the northern Antofagasta Region since 2014.
In stepping aside, Lagos said that he realized that not everyone shared his political vision and the coalition did not “converge around his project.”
In saying this, Lagos did offer a word of warning: “It is obvious, like the way others did not share my vision, that others in the coalition do not share the same urgency in facing this threat that seeks to strategically disperse the progressive forces in Chile and usher in a wave of mercantilist and conservative restoration that may last for many years.”
The coalition’s preference of Guillier over Lagos means that, once again, Piñera is the highest-profile name in the election. Combined with incumbent Michelle Bachelet’s low approval rating and a very united Chile Vamos coalition firmly behind him, Piñera has jumped out to an early lead.
According to a poll carried out by agency Cadem and published on April 17, Piñera was the candidate with the highest intention of votes with 24 percent, despite the fact that he is facing two investigations currently concerning a conflict-of-interest case with his financial holding company while he led Chile. Guillier, on the other hand, was second in the poll with 17 percent of the vote.
Carolina Goic, the head of the centrist/third-way Chilean Christian Democratic Party and Senator for the southern Magallanes region, scored a distant third with 9 percent of the vote while independent journalist Beatriz Sánchez, allied with the non-aligned left-wing Broad Front coalition, was fourth with 8 percent.
Piñera, who lost in his bid for the presidency in the 2005 election but emerged victorious in 2010, will see his campaign clouded by said allegations of illegal enrichment linked to his holding company.
The Public Ministry is current conducting the investigation into wrongdoing after news emerged in late 2016 that Bancard, his financial firm worth some $400 million that currently counts his son Sebastian Piñera Morel as one of its top directors, invested in a Peruvian fishing business which benefited from a maritime decision in an international case involving the two nations.
The digital Chilean daily ‘El Mostrador’ presented evidence late last year that Piñera invested in Empresa Pesquera Exalmar S.A., one of the largest fishing companies of Peru, in the middle of his presidential term and amidst the case presented by Peru against Chile at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that sought to redefine maritime borders on historical grounds.
“In coarse terms, this means that the part of Chile that was lost to the hands of Peru in this case was won by the former president through his company’s foreign investment in Peru,” the article in ‘El Mostrador’ read.
In 2008, after years of political wrangling, Peru filed a case at the ICJ regarding its maritime border dispute with Chile. Peru claimed that there was never an officially signed treaty that determined where one nation’s sea territory begins and ends. The Chileans, however, said the exact opposite, claiming that a duo of treaties signed in 1952 and 1954 between them and Peru (and Ecuador) clearly defined the lines as they stood.
Overall, nearly 38,000 square kilometers (14,700 square miles) of lucrative ocean territory was at stake and the ICJ delivered its verdict in January of 2014, the final and definitive judgment concerning the dispute.
Peru seemingly came out the winner, gaining a large chunk of the disputed territory (some 21,000 sq. km. of the aforementioned 38,000 sq. km.) even though they did not get everything they wanted, including a section of the maritime territory that remained in the hands of Chile that is more valuable in terms of containing high-yield fishing waters.
Regardless, Peru gained a large amount of exploitable maritime territory at the end of the contentious and heated case and Piñera invested in the harvesting being carried out in that territory through the Peruvian fishery, of which he still owns 9.10 percent today as a shareholder.
During the case at the ICJ, Piñera stayed silent about his investment interests north of the border but repeatedly and emphatically stated that he was enthusiastic about a positive outcome for Chile in the case that was a “noble national cause.”
Upon learning the decision of the ICJ, Piñera said that he lamented the decision but added that “keeping calm is the best defense possible,” a statement that perhaps now has a new meaning given the revelations concerning his monetary interests in the disputed territory.
For his part, Piñera denied any wrongdoing and said that he has “detached himself from the management and administration” of Bancard. This is despite the fact that his son sits on the board of directors and that he still owns shares. Still, he says that there is no conflict of interest issue at hand because he is not making any more “investment decisions” at Bancard and that the case is politically motivated.