Political Mandate´s Nick Laitner, currently on sabbatical in South America, reports on election fever in Chile.
Punta Arenas, a windswept little town deep in Chilean Patagonia, doesn´t have a lot going on. The main tourist attraction here is the local cemetery, although Antarctica and penguin colonies are nearby (that´s why we´re here). However, the town has come alive in recent days as excitement mounts throughout Chile ahead of Sunday´s presidential elections.
Presidential contender Sebastian Pinera, a wealthy right-wing businessman with a go-getting style and perfect politician´s hair, was in town on Saturday. Pinera told the small crowd in Punta´s main square that the area was one of Chile´s finest, and that he would help it achieve its potential. Not to be outdone, yesterday local MP Carolina Goic, from the ruling Concertation coalition, led 12 men dressed as Santa Claus in some morning carols in one of the town´s main streets, while her activists gave out posters, pamphlets and sweets. And that was tame compared with some of the bizarre campaigning we witnessed in Santiago (see photo).
Pinera is taking on Eduardo Frei, former President and candidate of the mighty left-right Concertation, which has held power here for nearly 20 years.
The broad coalition, currently led by incumbent President Michelle Bachelet, has been credited with Chile´s vast economic and social improvements over recent years – no less an authority than The Economist suggests that the nation is well on its way to becoming South America´s first ´first world´ country (The Economist obviously hasn´t stayed in our guesthouse).
A potential wild card is independent candidate Marco Enriquez Ominami, an implausibly good looking young filmmaker whose new ´Coalition for Change´ is winning support among the many Chileans disappointed or bored with Concertation rule. If the teenage girls we saw queuing for their free ´Marco´ poster had the vote, he´d be a shoe-in. As it is, he may well fulfil the role of a perfect spoiler candidate, splitting the left-centre vote and forcing a run off between Frei and Pinera. My money is on ´The Haircut´ to squeak home in the second round.
Everywhere in Chile, the streets are littered with posters, billboards and lawn-signs, young activists (albeit paid) stand on every street corner giving out pamphlets, and you can´t walk into a bar without entering a heated political debate (believe me, we´ve tried). A vibrant, exciting election campaign is testement to how far this country has come, less than two decades since the end of the brutal and tyrannical Pinochet regime.
It also shows Chile in a fine light compared with many of its neighbours, many of whom fit the old-school Latin American political stereotype all too well. When we were in Venezuela, crackpot demagogue Hugo Chavez was busy threatening straw man America and neighbouring Colombia with "100 years of war", perhaps hoping to distract attention away from his criminally incompetent government – electricity brownouts are now commonplace across the country, despite it claiming the world´s largest oil reserves.
Further south in Bolivia, lefty populist and Chavez-lite Evo Morales was preparing for this month´s elections by imprisoning his main opponent, the conservative leader (and Borat lookalike) Manfred Leopoldo. Expect the party of Morales, who remains wildly popular in South America´s poorest country, to triumph, and for Leopoldo to be quietly released shortly after the results are in.
Across the border in Argentina, President Christina Fernandez was busy trying to enact a media ownership law that would serve to break up only one big media conglomerate, which happens to be her regime´s most persistent critic. And even the usually sane Brazilian President Lula recently embraced Iranian Mahmoud Ahmedinejad (literally and metaphorically) in Brasilia, and praised the rogue state´s nuclear ambitions.
All of which makes Chile´s current festival of democracy all the more impressive. And the penguins were cute too.