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Op-Ed piece
Marco Enriquez-Ominami: Change?
Outsider Spices Up Chilean Presidential Race
By Juliet Shardlow
Staff Writer
Marco Enriquez-Ominami

On Dec. 13, 2009, Barack Obama is standing for election in Chile. He isn't. But you may be forgiven for thinking that he is. Sticking out like the sore thumb in the status quo of stable representatives from the centre-left and catholic conservatism, Marco Enríquez-Ominami wants 'change'.

In the lead up to the presidential election on December 13, Enríquez-Ominami has quite literally risen up from nowhere to the top flights of the country’s political scene. For a film-maker with little political experience and no party affiliation, it is a brave guess how he has managed to rank up 19% in recent opinion polls, closely trailing Eduardo Frei, second favourite to be in the run off on the 17th of January. Anyone could argue that 19% and 26% are not 'close' markers, but in a country where 14% of voters are undecided, or threaten to spoil their ballot papers, it is not necessarily a closed race.

Like Obama, a vote for Enríquez-Ominami goes hand in hand with a romanticised dream. His father was an Anti-Pinochet freedom fighter, a Guevara-type figure, killed in a battle against the militia in 1974. Like Obama, he is seen to represent the 'forgotten' voters, or the underdogs, basing his campaign upon a new “citizen politics” which rallies against the supposedly elitist persuasion of his rivals. He too was also brought up abroad, having fled to Paris as an infant with his mother to escape from persecution in the Pinochet regime.

And Enríquez-Ominami wants change. He wants to change the constitution and rid the electoral system of constituency voting handed down to the present government by Pinochet. And a good thing, too. The current system is widely acknowledged to give those in power too much power, limiting smaller party involvement. The current constitution has also contributed to a devastating distancing of young people from political involvement.

His campaign gains momentum every time he criticizes the ruling left coalition (The Concertacion) for outliving its 20 year rule. Having publically challenged the other principal candidates on controversial topics hardly ever discussed in election campaigns, such as gay marriage and abortion rights, he forces the strongly catholic-backed conservatives into a very uncomfortable corner .

As we know from 2008, anyone fighting an election campaign of 'renewal', or 'improvement' has an ace up their sleeve. It forces the competition to justify why they are not outdated, rutted or, the case of Chile, going to return the nation to a state of either extreme conservative control or economic meltdown.

The 36-year-old candidates' thinking is indeed a wishy-washy liberal mixture. But his personality, not his policies, is what people want to see. His very candidacy is a statement against the Concertación’s failure to hold an initial primary election, and against what he deems to be irresponsibility in the highest forms of government: the party bosses.

But fight as he may, these are precisely the party bosses that hold majority approval ratings, have endorsements from the existing governments and have mass backing from key religious centres.

The two candidates in question are both in their 60's, but both enviably popular: Eduardo Frei, a Christian Democrat and former president, does not promise change but instead claims that the country needs continued stable left rule. His main critics have pointed out that even though he has the endorsement of the hugely popular outgoing president, Michelle Bachelet, her fan base is largely gathered from her enigmatic personality, which, unfortunately does not rub off on him.

Sebastian Pinera, on the other hand, looks surely set to make it through the first round. The right wing billionaire, best known for his stake in colo-colo (the biggest football club in chile), relies on support from catholic conservatives. Unfortunately for Enríquez-Ominami, Pinera's strong lead in the opinion polls echoes his hard-line stance on law, order and the economy. Many people think he represents the change the country needs, not remembering that this could be the first elected conservative government since Pinochet in 1958.

It would be naive to claim that Enríquez-Ominami can win because he has the 'Obama effect'. Sure, they both shake up what had become a stale pattern of post-authoritarian dual-party contest, but what his American counterpart had was the financial and accountable stability of The Democratic Party. Enríquez-Ominami, once a member of the center-left Concertación alliance, goes up against the country’s longest-lived and most successful coalition, and their close contestants, the center-right. He also goes up against a regime of years of economical stability and proven increase in rights and welfare for the Chilean people. His political movement finds hope only in the whispers of discontent amongst, as it polls, 17% of the nation.

His only hope sneaking into a second round ballot is if Frei's entrenched, elite-dominated politics falls foul of a large percentage of Chilenas who have become tired and apathetic towards Concertación. Despite the raging popularity of their leader, the party's success has come under public scrutiny for being based on a corrupt political model. Putting limits on change was seen by Concertacion as a small price to pay for democratic equilibrium, when deals were cut between certain elites in order to keep the centre-left as a stable ruling party.

If you read the editorials today from all over the world, very few of them will claim that Mr Enríquez-Ominami can win. Well, we knew that, since he stood up against two longtime competitors in the dying hours of one of the most important elections South America has seen in years. However, what he has done by standing is to split the center-left. This has forced a rethink within the coalition. A coalition that has ruled Chile for past 20 years. His part in the race proves to be the cat amongst the pigeons.

His tactics have made a very experienced politician like Mr Frei appear inferior, by bending him into a model whereby young advisors are stood at the front of rallies, and 'workers rights' feature in every second line of his speeches.

No one can tell you whether Enríquez-Ominami would in fact be as revolutionary as promised if he was in power. In several years, he may be criticised for eventually giving in to the elites he originally fought against. No one has been provided with a nice leaflet of what exactly Enríquez-Ominami's 'citizen politics' would look like, and he certainly hasn't got the political experience to show that he has put any of his models to practice. But we don't really need to think about the plan becoming the policy, because like every election since the fall of Pinochet-era politics, the various reactionists will battle it out in the final round. Perhaps Chile isn't ready for Change. Just yet.

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