- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 13, 2009

SANTIAGO, Chile | Michelle Bachelet has an approval rating of almost 80 percent - an honor few sitting presidents of the world can boast of - but she is not on the ballot for the presidential election Sunday.

Ms. Bachelet’s four-year term is nearing its end because Chilean law does not permit a president to serve consecutive terms.

Sundays election, therefore, is hotly contested, with a wealthy businessman from the political right, Sebastian Pinera, favored to oust the ruling center-left coalition government known as the “Concertacion” for the first time since the restoration of democracy here in 1990.

“All of the candidates in this presidential race want to be associated with Bachelet,” said Jose Jara, director of the Santiago office of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences. “Her government has managed the economy well and put in place much-needed reforms.”

Such success has indeed prompted Mr. Pinera, 60, who received a doctorate in economics from Harvard, to go out of his way to endorse the sweeping social-protection programs for the countrys poor installed by Ms. Bachelet, saying he would continue with the programs if elected.

Chiles enviable economic stability despite a worldwide crisis and its gains in improving social-protection policies under the Bachelet government have even seen President Obama jockeying for the attention of Ms. Bachelet, the first woman president in Chilean history.

At the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago in April, Mr. Obama went out of his way to have Ms. Bachelet sit next to him at the official dinner. The two leaders have had frequent phone conversations, and after a meeting in the Oval Office in June, Mr. Obama called Ms. Bachelet “one of the most compelling leaders we have in the world.”

The center-left Concertacion governments, which came to power after winning a 1988 national plebiscite that put an end to the 17-year military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, have enjoyed economic growth rates averaging between 5 percent and 7 percent over the past two decades, and poverty has been more than halved in the post-Pinochet era.

Although the country of 16 million people continues to be plagued by one of the widest rich-poor gaps in the world, Ms. Bachelet’s reforms and greater investment in pensions, education and health have helped lessen the hardship for the vast majority of Chilean households, which make on average less than $530 per month.

Still, despite the overall successes of the present government, opinion polls show a Chilean public ready for a change.

According to the latest poll by Chiles highly respected Center for Policy Studies, Mr. Pinera is likely to win the vote Sunday with 36 percent of the vote, and Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle of the Christian Democratic Party, who was president from 1994 to 2000, will come in second with 26 percent.

Two other candidates in the race, leftist congressman Marco Enriquez Ominami, who has campaigned on making deep reforms to the political system, appears to have 18 percent of the vote, while Jorge Arrate, the candidate for the far-left coalition Junto Podemos (“Together We Can”), has 5 percent.

Such a result would mean that Chile would hold a Jan. 17 runoff vote between Mr. Pinera and Mr. Frei, and polls suggest if that happens the vote would be close.

If Mr. Pinera does win, he would become the first democratically elected Chilean president from a political right party in more than 50 years, since Jorge Alessandri was elected in 1958.

Polls also show, however, that more than 40 percent of Chileans are undecided going into this years election. Analysts say that means the country may finally be moving beyond its polarized past that pitted right-wing supporters of the Pinochet regime against sympathizers of the center-left parties that worked to put an end to the dictatorship.

“You have a new demographic now, an increasingly large so-called swing vote made up of people who change their votes between right and left candidates each election,” said Gregory Elacqua, an American political scientist who teaches public policy at Santiagos Diego Portales University.

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