President Michelle Bachelet faces a wide-ranging challenge from an ex-president in a run-off on Sunday in Chile, a referendum on both the deep partisan division in the region and her response to it.
The polarization, which pits a former dictator of the country against the daughter of a military dictator who became one of its most popular democratically elected leaders, could be a global echo of the U.S.’s divisive political debate over President Donald Trump.
In Chile, the election is occurring amid a particularly febrile season in the long-running campaign. Right-wing billionaire Victor Jara, 62, the wealthiest candidate in the country’s history, became embroiled in a corruption scandal that pushed him into a narrow second-place finish.
Jara has been accused of arranging to pay off constituents through secret gifts of contracts to an interior ministry program designed to build homes for low-income families. In addition, Jara was arrested last week and a judge sentenced him to 18 months in prison for the financial improprieties.
Bachelet, who is seeking to serve a second consecutive four-year term, faces former President Sebastian Pinera, 62, in the runoff election, despite benefiting from massive voter enthusiasm and millions of new social security citizens under her watch.
Pinera has campaigned aggressively against environmental issues, arguing that those problems are being largely solved. He also called for an increase in taxes and fees, which Bachelet’s administration has resisted. The polarized campaign also has focused on the specifics of taxes, as well as on the views of President Trump, from what literature has called “Chile’s Donald Trump” to the business conservatives critical of capitalism.
Bachelet is trying to make environmental awareness a key theme in her campaign. She has promised to limit deforestation and increase protection for the Amazon and other World Heritage sites. She has also been a staunch defender of her country’s sovereignty over the exclusive economic zone in the South Atlantic. She has lambasted drilling activity in the area, and repeatedly raised the issue with Trump. The president has defended his administration’s environmental record and called Bachelet “a good friend.”
Pinera, on the other hand, has been heavily criticized for his role in another decades-old conflict over water. His father was one of the military rulers during the Pinochet era who brutally cracked down on dissent during the so-called September 1973 coup. After Pinochet stepped down, Jara took over and launched a crackdown on opponents that included hundreds of killings, hundreds of kidnappings and the enforced disappearance of several thousand people. Jara was later jailed, tortured and exiled. The military dictatorship and a military court tried Jara on political charges but they found no case against him.
“We know very well how it feels to be persecuted,” Pinera told U.S. President Barack Obama when he visited Chile last month. “But it seems like you never forget the things you endured.”
Pinera has touted his decades of business and political experience. But his close ties to Pinochet have prompted criticism in Chile.
Bachelet, who has drawn support from both the left and the right, has attempted to use the run-off election against the self-described champion of Chilean greatness to defend herself against attacks that she is on the nationalist-liberal wing of the Democratic Socialista Party (FDS). In his speeches, she has repeatedly called Jara and Pinera “the new Pinochet.”
Although polls show that nearly 90 percent of Chileans are either undecided or plan to vote for the candidate they favored at the beginning of the election season, Pinera — who is considered the front-runner — faces his own problems. Four of the country’s leading universities, including prestigious, government-funded military schools, have declined to officially endorse him, along with the country’s main newspaper. He has also been criticized for having no executive experience.
“We are in the runoff of a complicated election,” Pinera told the Bloomberg news agency at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month. “Citizens want us to develop the nation for the future.”