SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Conservative billionaire Sebastian Pinera won Chile’s presidential election on Sunday, ending two decades of centre-left rule in Latin America’s most stable economy and the world’s top copper producer.
Pinera won with almost 52 percent of the vote and his leftist rival, former President Eduardo Frei, quickly conceded defeat.
The victory by Pinera, a Harvard-educated airline magnate, marks a shift to the right in South America, a region dominated by leftist rulers from Venezuela to Argentina, although no major changes to economic policy are expected.
Many Chileans were disenchanted with the ruling centre-left “Concertacion” coalition that has governed since the end of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-1990 dictatorship.
Support for the leftist ruling coalition dwindled, with voters saying it should have made better use of billions of dollars in copper boom savings. There was also growing frustration that an old guard has dominated politics in Chile, also a major salmon, wine and fruit exporter.
Pinera supporters danced in the streets, waving red, white and blue Chilean flags. It was the first time that Chile’s political right, which backed Pinochet’s bloody dictatorship, has democratically won the presidency for over 50 years.
“Better times are coming for Chile. There is a great new phase on the way,” said Pinera, who will take power in March. “After 20 years I think a change will be good for Chile. It’s like opening the windows of your home to let fresh air come in.”
Chile, with a population of 16 million, has the highest standard of living in Latin America, according to the Human Development Index, which measures education, health, income and other factors. But many voters said it was time for a change.
Pinera, 60, has vowed to give Chile’s state a business-like overhaul to boost efficiency, promising to create a million jobs and boost economic growth to average 6 percent a year. The economy shrank in 2009, its first recession in a decade.
His critics say Pinera’s plan depends too heavily on the private sector generating jobs and banks on a steady global recovery maintaining copper demand. Pinera could also struggle to push reforms through a divided Congress.
An extreme sports enthusiast who flies his own helicopter, Pinera succeeded in distancing himself from the legacy of Pinochet’s rule, when over 3,000 people were killed or “disappeared” and around 28,000 were tortured.
One of Pinera’s brothers was a minister under Pinochet and some of his aides worked for the dictatorship.
“Pinera’s victory is a clear indication that Chile is moving beyond the Pinochet era,” said Daniel Erikson, a Latin America expert at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.
Pinera made his fortune by bringing credit cards to Chile and holds a stake in flagship airline LAN. He has vowed to sell his LAN stake before taking office in March, and has placed hundreds of millions of dollars worth of investments in blind trust.
Pinera was the market favourite, and analysts forecast a win would give extra momentum in the near-term to a stock market rally continuing from 2009 on a recovery from global crisis and sharp price gains for copper, Chile’s main export.
“People wanted change. They wanted to breathe after 20 years of Concertacion rule,” Patricio Acosta, a 39-year-old publicist, said as she celebrated Pinera’s victory with fellow supporters.
Frei, whose 1994-2000 presidency was shaken by recession, had advocated a greater state role in the economy, but failed to unite the left.
A maverick independent who divided the left and polled third in a December first round vote, missing the run-off, refused to back Frei until the last minute. Even then, his endorsement was reluctant and lukewarm, and Frei was unable to catch Pinera in the second round.
The 67-year-old civil engineer was also unable to capitalise on record approval ratings for President Michelle Bachelet, the country’s first female leader, despite vowing to maintain her welfare programs.
Bachelet, herself tortured under the dictatorship, was barred by the constitution from seeking immediate re-election.
With reporting by Rodrigo Martinez, Antonio de la Jara, Aaron Nelsen, Alvaro Tapia, Juana Casas and Javier Lopez. Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Kieran Murray