SANTIAGO, Chile – With a softening of his rhetoric and nods to the progressive sectors of Chile, conservative former leader Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014) defeated the left-leaning Alejandro Guillier in the run-off vote.
With the votes tallied, Piñera came out the clear winner with 54.5 percent compared to Guillier’s 45.4 percent, a margin of victory that was much larger than expected.
What was expected, however, was that Guillier would not be able to consolidate the support of the Chilean center-left and left-wing sectors, which have seen their unified group splinter off into several factions in the last year.
Just over a month ago, Piñera, a billionaire businessman who led Chile from 2010 to 2014 on behalf of the center-right National Renewal, easily claimed the top spot in the first round of voting.
In this election, the conservative coalition Chile Vamos (Let’s Go, Chile) fully backed Piñera, the consistent leader in the pre-election polls, as he was the only viable candidate given his standing as the most prominent politician of the center-right.
While Piñera 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.
Instead, the New Majority decided to throw most of its support behind Alejandro Guillier, a respected journalist and radio/television political commentator (and Senator since 2014) that is technically an independent but is allied with the center-left Social Democrat Radical Party.
Given Piñera’s name recognition and coalition support, the withdrawal of Lagos and incumbent Michelle Bachelet’s low approval rating, Guillier was expected to finish in a very distant second place. He did, indeed, finish in second but with a respectable 22 percent of the vote.
Thus, the two were set for the second round run-off vote. Piñera went from a possible outright victory in the first round to facing an uphill task given that the left-leaning votes in total surprassed the conservatives.
The primary issue, then, became just how well Guillier would be able to convince centrist and progressive voters to join him in the second round or at the very least, rally the anti-Piñera vote.
The answer was a resounding rejection by both the centrists who would have preferred an established New Majority figure and the progressives who wanted somebody from the nascent left-wing Broad Front coalition, a group of parties whose candidate Beatriz Sánchez finished in a surprising third place in the first round just two points behind Guillier. Furthermore, the Broad Front as a unit never officially endorsed Guillier in the run-off.
The runner-up was disappointed; Guillier admitted the thorough defeat and called for a rebuilding of the center-left forces in the country after the splits of recent years.
“I congratulate Mr. Piñera on his solid triumph. We need to learn a lesson from this and reconstruct an opposition union based on solidarity and equal opportunity for our members,” Guillier said.
“We have suffered a hard defeat and for this, we must be self-critical and examine what we could have done better. We need to go and continue reaching out to our neighbors and strengthen our respective leaders within the coalition. In spite of the loss, we still need to continue defending the reforms in which we believe and personally, I promise to work hard for our unity and our ideals,” Guillier said after his defeat.
Piñera, on the other hand, was in an understandably more jovial mood after his victory.
Understanding what brought him the victory, however, he left behind any confrontational rhetoric and instead focused on centrist and moderate messages. “Of course there is a difference, of course there is a pluralism of ideas, but we are never enemies. We can be political adversaries, but never enemies,” Piñera insistently repeated.
In recent months, Piñera has voiced support for certain reforms undertaken by Bachelet’s government, including the all-important push for free university education. Furthermore, he knows that he does not have a majority in Congress and as such, Piñera knows that he will not be able to institute any radical changes in policy.
In a demonstration of the democratic stability and general goodwill that has marked Chile’s political system since the fall of the right-wing military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), the center-left incumbent Michelle Bachelet called Piñera to congratulate him and their conversation was broadcast live throughout Chile. The two wished each other all the best and Bachelet was invited to Piñera’s home for breakfast the following morning to discuss the handover of power in a friendly manner.
To cement the rare mutual respect that lawmakers have for those on the opposite end of the political spectrum in Chile, Guillier and Piñera appeared together at the end of election night where the two hugged and congratulated each other on a long electoral season.