The Chilean right-wing is salivating.

Buoyed by a better-than-expected showing in mid-December’s first-round presidential voting, conservative candidate and billionaire business magnate Sebastián Piñera is the frontrunner to triumph when Chileans return to the polls on January 17.

Proclaiming himself the populist “change” candidate, Piñera has capitalized on long-simmering dissatisfaction with the corruption and staid thinking of the ruling center-left parties. He promises to lead Chile into a new era of fresh ideas and honest government. Even the popular and nominally progressive current president, Michelle Bachelet, has been unable to put the brakes on this apparent rightward turn by the change-starved Chilean people.

A Piñera victory would give Chile its first right-wing government since the U.S.-backed Augusto Pinochet dictatorship (1973-90), and its first elected right-wing government since Jorge Alessandri took office in 1958. This puts the South American nation in stark contrast to its neighbors, where increasingly active social movements have swept a new generation of progressive and populist leaders into office.

With the Chilean right-wing closer to taking the reins of power than at any moment since Pinochet’s departure, Chile appears to be a regional anomaly. But is this a fair characterization of the Southern Cone nation and its people? And is there any hope of a resurgence of the movements that brought Salvador Allende into office four decades ago as the world’s first democratically elected socialist president?

The Chilean Political Climate

The post-Pinochet political system has amply demonstrated that it works for, and is designed to work for, those with power and privilege. Even victories at the ballot box for a series of nominally left-wing Chilean presidents — every one since Pinochet’s departure, including current head-of-state and Socialist Party member Michelle Bachelet — have failed to bring about profound changes in the oppressive structures that the dictatorship left behind.

While several Latin American nations have held constitutional assemblies in order to discard the constitutions that military regimes instituted, the Chilean state’s guiding document is still the same one produced under the Pinochet dictatorship.

True, Bachelet made important reforms to the Chilean constitution, such as increasing government control over the armed forces, and eliminating provisions that allowed for the appointment of “senators for life.” However, it’s simply too early to declare, as Bachelet has done, that Chile has finalized its transition to democracy. In an issue that has repeatedly drawn the ire of international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Bachelet has followed her predecessors’ lead in applying the constitution’s draconian “anti-terrorism” provisions to indigenous Mapuche protesters in the country’s south. In one recent case, a federal police officer shot an indigenous protester in the back and killed him.

Along with drafting a new constitution, the other third rail for Chilean politics is the country’s neoliberal economic system, imposed by the dictatorship and its Chicago-trained economists. Bachelet herself ran on a platform of continuing with the country’s adherence to a free-market, export-dominated economic model, though she also pledged, and to a modest extent delivered, a larger safety net for the have-nots (expanding, for example, health care benefits for the elderly).

To a degree, Bachelet’s strategy has worked. Chile is the world’s largest copper exporter. High prices for the metal on the world market — fueled by demand from China and other rising Asian economies — have filled the state’s coffers during Bachelet’s administration. This influx has thus far allowed the country to avoid the worst of the world economic crisis, and Bachelet’s approval rating has doubled. As of fall 2009, fewer than one in six Chileans disapproved of her job performance.

Still, Chile has a stubbornly high level of income inequality, particularly for a middle-income nation. Palliative measures will not be enough to bring of the benefits of the country’s economic boom to the millions who have been left behind.

Chilean civil society has not been entirely quiescent. A remarkable student movement blossomed in 2006 to fight for increased public support for education and the repeal of Pinochet-era education laws. Indigenous Mapuche activists are in the midst of a courageous effort to retake their land in Chile’s south. Labor unions have seen an uptick in militancy. These flashes of activity aside, the Chilean political landscape is desperately lacking the sort of grassroots engagement that has characterized much of the rest of Latin America in recent years.

Undoubtedly, Chilean social movements still bear some of the scars from the brutal repression of the Pinochet years, when some 100,000 people were tortured (and thousands “disappeared”). It’s not uncommon for parents even today to warn their university-age children against getting involved in something as innocuous-sounding as campus politics, for fear that in the event of another coup d’état, activists will again be targeted by government agents of repression.

Thus, in a business-dominated political climate with little popular mobilization, many Chileans simply abstain from the electoral process and politics more generally. Politics is a spectacle that has little to do with the challenge of eking out an existence, in a nation whose income inequality is nearly as bad as that of even notoriously stratified states such as Brazil and South Africa.

Elections and Outcomes

While election results in a depoliticized society, then, can conceal more about the country’s political scene than they reveal, the first round of presidential elections in mid-December nevertheless does give important insights into Chilean political and social trends.

Four candidates ran for president. The two highest vote-getters — Piñera (44.1 percent) and the uninspiring former president Eduardo Frei (29.6 percent), who has failed to resonate with voters in spite of receiving official backing from the much more popular Bachelet — face off in this week’s election.

Unusually, Frei faced stiff first-round competition from a former member of the Concertación (Concert of Parties for Democracy), the bloc of parties that has held the presidency since the end of Pinochet’s rule in 1990, and to which Frei himself belongs.

Marco Enríquez-Ominami (popularly known as “MEO”), a Socialist Party member-turned-independent and vocal critic of the ruling coalition, picked up 20.1 percent of the first-round votes, an indicator of the widespread disillusionment with Chile’s post-dictatorship governments. Significantly, despite the vague nature of his Obamaesque campaign platform, he has emerged as a potentially progressive force in Chilean politics and has refused to openly back Frei in the second round.

Lastly, Juntos Podemas Más (Together We Can Do More) candidate Jorge Arrate finished with 6.2 percent of votes, a stronger-than-usual showing for a candidate running on an openly leftist platform. In this vein, three members of the Communist Party won seats in the concurrent congressional elections. This is the first time that members of the party will hold political office in Chile since former president Salvador Allende was violently overthrown by a U.S.-backed coup in 1973.

Given his tremendous political advantage, it would be reasonable to think that Piñera should have easily won a first-round majority. The press leans right, and Piñera himself owns one of the country’s largest TV stations. His campaign flooded the streets with ads. And his main competitor was an unpopular former president, against whom he could present himself as the “change” candidate. That Piñera was still not able to muster the support of over half of the electorate in first-round voting indicates that support amongst Chileans for openly conservative and business-friendly candidates is less than a perfunctory analysis would suggest.

Chile and the U.S.: Ties that Bind

From Hugo Chávez in Venezuela to Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Evo Morales in Bolivia, a contingent of South American presidents, with strong backing from social movements, has led a continent-wide movement to break free from the stranglehold of U.S. influence and pursue an independent path of development. Even comparatively U.S.-friendly leaders, such as Lula in Brazil, have refused to break the emerging united South American front.

In this context, Chile has become an even more important U.S. ally. In March, Vice President Joseph Biden travelled to the Chilean coastal resort city of Viña del Mar for the Progressive Leaders Summit, as well as a personal meeting with Bachelet. The Chilean press took this as a vindication of the country’s neoliberal economic model. Though not a stooge for U.S. interests in the region — Bachelet, for example, stood with Morales as the Bolivian right-wing launched a civic coup against his government in August 2008 — Chile remains firmly in Washington’s orbit.

The U.S.-Chile free-trade agreement is one important sign of this relationship. In June, Bachelet met Barack Obama at the White House and kept a coy silence about recent U.S. moves to ratchet up its military presence in Colombia, even as other regional leaders have criticized the move. Chile has also indicated that it may follow U.S. policy and back a Honduran government headed by Porfirio Lobo, who won a recent fraudulent election after right-wing forces overthrew the democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya.

Tellingly, Obama has praised Bachelet as one of Latin America’s (and, indeed, the world’s) best leaders — a clear knock against her leftist counterparts — while commenting that he looks “to President Bachelet for good advice and good counsel in terms of how the United States can continue to build a strong relationship with all of Latin America.” Washington clearly views Chile as a “moderate” regional partner through which it can spread its influence vis-à-vis its less pliant neighbors.

Washington will be even more enthusiastic if Piñera wins. As one left-wing Latin American source puts it, “the arrival of Sebastián Piñera will mean opening a door in the south of Latin America to Washington’s geopolitical interests.” In fact, Washington swung that door wildly open in 1973, and it has yet to be shut since.

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