Is the Pinochet era finally over?

By 6 o'clock Sunday night, the news had filled the streets of Santiago with honking: For the first time in 52 years, Chile had elected a conservative president, unseating the left-leaning "Concertación" coalition that has ruled the country for the last two decades. From a crowded hotel ballroom at the Crown Plaza in Santiago, a posh-looking crowd of supporters for the winning candidate, billionaire businessman Sebastian Piñera, listened as the vote tallies were called out on television, district by district. Within minutes, his supporters were celebrating, waving flags from car windows and apartment balconies. In the end, Piñera took 52 percent to his opponent Eduardo Frei's 48 in the runoff election.

Piñera's campaign theme was a familiar one: change. "After 20 years of the same coalition, the same people, it's getting old," Arturo Alessandri C., a prominent lawyer who supports Piñera and who worked in the minister of planning under former military dictator Gen. August Pinochet, told me at a downtown polling station. "People want change. It's a feeling that has been present for the last two or three elections."

Just how big a change is unclear. Since 1990, Concertación governments, including the current one led by Socialist Michelle Bachelet, have helped transform this long sliver of South America into one of the region's most stable democracies, but haven't made fundamental changes to Pinochet's economic policies. So, though voters were clearly looking for aesthetic change, a new face to leadership, they may also have been hoping for more of the same.

Piñera seemed the perfect candidate for such an environment. While Concertación's Frei was a familiar character in politics, having already served as president once from 1994 to 2000, the charismatic, Harvard-educated Piñera promised to usher in a new era.

"It's a change of attitudes in politics," said Piñera supporter Percy Marin Vera at the winner's victory party Sunday, when asked to explain what the president-elect represented. But he and other supporters struggled to describe exactly what else they expected would be different about the new administration. During the campaign, Piñera promised to create 1 million new jobs and double Chile's per capita income in four years, but left his path to achieving that vague.

One key policy, at least, might be up for review. At present, the country puts revenue from its largest revenue source, copper, into a rainy day fund. Government budgets are based on the projected long-term price for the metal rather than the short-term booms and busts that doom so many other resource-dependent economies. But Piñera's administration may choose to tap into the surplus funds that high commodity prices have put into Chile's coffers in recent years, said Alessandri C.

News reports and polls had indicated in the days leading up to the election that Frei was gaining strength, as the candidate and his allies reminded voters that many in Piñera's right-wing base -- though not, apparently, Piñera -- had also backed Pinochet during the 1970s and 80s. "We were not afraid," Frei said Friday of that era. "We have continued since then with courage and conviction."

Monday's politically charged opening of the Museum of Memory, the first collection of testimonies and materials from Pinochet's victims, has been met with a mix of acclaim and criticism. Right-leaning protestors picketed the doors, complaining that the museum should include not only the abuses under Pinochet but the economic collapse that took place under his predecessor, the Marxist Salvador Allende.

"It's an abomination," said retired Senator Arturo Alessandri B., a Pinochet supporter whose uncle Jorge was the last democratically elected rightist president 52 years ago. "It's another effort by the Marxists to keep the flame alive against the military government." (Alessandri B., whose son is quoted above, ran against Frei in 1993 and lost.)

Many in Concertación are still anxious about Piñera's perceived ties to the Pinochet period. But they are even more anxious about his business ties, which he has failed to relinquish despite campaign promises to do so. Piñera, a pioneering credit-card entrepreneur, owns part of the national airlines, LAN, as well as a TV station. Allessandri C. said before the results were announced that Piñera was planning to sell his stakes if he was indeed elected, but "wanted to wait and see" before making a move. He added that in his capacity as a corporate lawyer, he had been working to drum up foreign interest in buying stakes in the airline, LAN. The TV station, he explained, will be put "under a non-profit foundation" that Piñera would not run.

Pedro Garcia, minister of health from 2003 to 2006, worries that Piñera's business-friendly approach would blind him to public-sector approaches, particularly in areas of social services such as health. Garcia, who has worked with some of Piñera's team on other projects, told me: "They don't know how to do public policy, because they only think in the short term."

Some in Concertación seemed to welcome their chance to be in the opposition. "It's been the same people for 20 years," said Cristián Solano, a Frei supporter at Concertación headquarters Sunday night. It is time to send a clear signal about the party's willingness to reorganize and renew, said fellow supporter Nelson Morales. Among other things, a stint in the opposition might allow the left to boost its voice in Chile's press, which has been dominated by the right since Pinochet's time.

"This finishes the transition," said Carlos Larrain, Jr., a lawyer and Piñera supporter, from the candidate's headquarters on Sunday night. "This closes the Pinochet chapter, and now we have a chance to start over."



Change Chile can believe in?

Could Chile's political right return to power after two decades in the wilderness?

That's the question hanging over Santiago, the capital, as Chileans head to the polls today to vote in a runoff presidential election between Eduardo Frei, the moderate former president backed by the ruling center-left coalition, and Sebastian Piñera (left), the billionaire businessman backed by the right. Piñera won the first round with 44 percent of the vote to Frei's 30 percent, but the latest poll shows the race tightening in recent weeks. It's now a tossup, and nobody can say for sure who's going to win.

The New York Times has a good primer on the election here, but I think it doesn't quite capture one intriguing aspect of the campaign -- for a country that has only recently emerged from dictatorship, it's a surprisingly low-key contest. You don't see many signs for the candidates on the streets, and coverage in the newspapers has been overshadowed by the crisis in Haiti, where Chile has a few hundred peacekeeping troops. One obvious reason is Frei, who isn't exactly the most inspirational figure and is best remembered here for presiding over a nasty economic downturn when the Asian crisis struck Chile in the late 1990s. But another reason is that the candidates aren't as different as you might think.

In Frei's last campaign rally in La Granja, a lower-class neighborhood to the south of Santiago, he spoke obliquely, but at length about his coalition's role in ousting Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the rightist dictator who ruled Chile with an iron fist for 17 years after overthrowing Marxist President Salvador Allende in a military coup on Sept. 11, 1973. Last Monday, current president and Socialist Party leader Michelle Bachelet opened the Museum of Memory, a monument to the more than 3,000 people killed, and the nearly 30,000 tortured during Pinochet's regime. Many on the right -- a significant chunk of which still supports Pinochet -- saw the timing of the museum's opening as politically motivated. But just how much Chileans are still voting with Pinochet in mind is an open question.

My hunch is that Piñera -- who is running on the slogan "participate in change" -- has the better instincts here, but he carries some baggage of his own. His brother José was Pinochet's labor minister and led the neoliberal reform of Chile's pension system. In 2004, José, now a fellow at Washington's libertarian Cato Institute, penned a New York Times op-ed supporting  George W. Bush's efforts to privatize Social Security, touting Chile as a model; two years later, his brother, running in 2006 against Bachelet, vowed to overhaul the pension system and said it required "deep reforms in all sectors."

For all the seeming drama of a rightist return to power, I suspect there's less room for radical change than many Piñera opponents here fear. After all, the four center-left governments that succeeded Pinochet never really overhauled his free-market economic program, choosing instead to tinker around the margins and focusing on infrastructure development and expanding social welfare programs. This blend of left and right is clearly working; last week, Chile became the first South American nation to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, marking the country's arrival as a developed state. And the country has weathered the economic crisis better than most, with a projected GDP growth rate of 4 percent in 2010 after a mild downturn in 2009. If something's not broken, why fix it?

UPDATE: Pinera wins. More in a bit...

AFP/Getty Images