BY ANDREA ELLIOTT
SANTIAGO, Chile -- Socialist Ricardo Lagos won Chile's presidency
narrowly defeating his right-wing opponent, Joaquin Lavin, in a runoff election.
Lagos, the candidate of the country's ruling coalition government,
pulled in 51.31
percent of the votes, beating Lavin, who received 48.69 percent, according to an
official tally of more than 87 percent of the votes.
Lagos, 61, will be the first socialist president to rule Chile
since Salvador Allende,
who attempted to remake the country in a Marxist image and was ousted by Gen.
Augusto Pinochet in a violent 1973 coup. But Lagos has repeatedly distanced
himself from traditional far-left positions of his Socialist Party.
``Lagos will be the first president of the 21st Century and the
president of all
Chileans,'' said Sergio Bitar, president of the Party for Democracy, one of four
parties that make up the ruling coalition, or Concertacion.
Cars flooded the streets of Santiago and crowds gathered around
command post at the downtown Hotel Carrera, waving flags and cheering as the
decisive tallies were announced.
Polls leading up to the election showed the candidates in a tie,
and analysts were
hesitant to predict the outcome.
The turnout was heavy, with more than 7.3 million of about 8 million
voters peacefully casting ballots. Polls closed with no reports of problems.
Lavin conceded defeat at 8:30 p.m.
``We cannot be sad,'' he said. ``We ran a great campaign and obtained
Not since 1990 has the coalition come so close to losing power,
or the right so
close to winning half the country's votes. A Dec. 12 election left Lagos and Lavin
in a dead heat, each winning about 47 percent of the votes.
Lagos will replace Christian Democratic President Eduardo Frei
in March to begin
a third six-year term for the coalition that has ruled Chile since Pinochet was
ousted in a plebiscite and stepped down in 1990.
Analysts had predicted that the news of Pinochet's possible return
to Chile from
house arrest in London would have a minimal effect on the election, but could tip
the scale in favor of either candidate.
The news may have cost Lavin centrist votes, which he courted
himself from the Pinochet dictatorship, but it also could have cost Lagos
communist votes by linking him to the government that pushed for Pinochet's
``In a race this tight, everything has an influence,'' said Chilean
political analyst Lucia Santa Cruz.
Lagos, a U.S.-trained economist and former minister of education
works under the ruling coalition, vowed not to be ``the country's second socialist
president, but the third Concertacion president.''
SHIFT IN POLLS
Six months ago, Lagos enjoyed a comfortable lead in the polls,
but Lavin, 46,
surged ahead, using the country's current recession to rally voters, particularly
the 20 percent of Chileans below the poverty line.
For Lagos, Chile's economic landscape could not have been worse:
economy, which grew at a rate of 7 percent for almost a decade, shrank 1 percent
last year; unemployment is at 10 percent.
Lagos was also hurt, his critics and supporters agree, by a poorly
For months, he used the slogan ``Growth with equality'' and gave speeches
steeped in ideology.
By contrast, Lavin ran a slick, market-driven campaign, offering
voters solutions to
concrete problems such as crime, insufficient health care and unemployment.
Lavin's unexpected popularity forced Lagos, in the second round
to change his message. Enlisting the help of some of Chile's top advertising
experts, Lagos shifted his focus from economic equality to Chile's modernization
under the two coalition governments of the last decade.
While Lavin and Lagos took similar stances on many political issues,
divided on the family values front. In a predominantly Roman Catholic country
where abortion and divorce are illegal, Lavin, a devout Catholic, had a clear
advantage over Lagos, who is agnostic, twice-married and in favor of therapeutic
Both Lagos and Lavin steered clear of mentioning Pinochet's arrest,
faded as an issue of importance to a majority of Chileans by the time
campaigning began six months ago. They agreed that Pinochet was not above
the law and should be brought to trial if he returns home.
Lavin, who visited the general in England in late 1998, distanced
himself from the
dictatorship by meeting with the relatives of some of the 3,000 people who were
killed or disappeared during Pinochet's 16-year rule.
Lagos' one attempt to counter this strategy by linking Lavin to
Pinochet in a
television ad was poorly received. Lagos made his political name in Chile by
publicly denouncing the general on national television in 1988 -- a move some
Copyright 2000 Miami Herald