BY ANDREA ELLIOTT
SANTIAGO, Chile -- Blasting rap music from loudspeakers and standing,
microphone in hand, leaning through the sun roof of his silver Honda CRV,
Joaquin Lavin began his political trek through Chile in May. The presidential
candidate traveled from town to town, telling curious onlookers to vote for him
because he would change traditional politics for good.
Lavin's opponents did not take him seriously, but seven months
and 25,000 miles
later, the conservative, 46-year-old candidate is mobbed in every town he visits.
He is second in the polls and in Sunday's presidential election poses the greatest
threat to Chile's ruling center-left coalition since the country returned to
democracy in 1990.
``We call it the Lavin phenomenon,'' said singer Jorge Eduardo
travels with Lavin, warming up the crowd before he speaks. ``It's like a party where
the same music is played over and over, and then a new person comes along with
new music, and everyone starts to dance.''
Walking the dusty streets of small towns dressed in Levi's Dockers
shirts, Lavin has run a casual, American-style campaign unprecedented in a
country where most politicians wear suits and never leave the podium. Among his
influences, he says, are the campaign walks of former Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles
and Newt Gingrich's ``Contract with America.''
At televised rallies, Lavin signed large, white cardboard contracts
with Chile's 13
regions, promising hundreds of thousands of new jobs, as well as a day-care
program for poor mothers and a state-funded telephone system that would allow
patients to call in for appointments instead of lining up at public hospitals before
dawn, as they do now.
``What has Lavin done? He has run a campaign whose message is
not limited to
speeches. It comes out in images,'' said Gonzalo Cordero, one of Lavin's top
aides. ``To have him signing a contract -- that's an image. You have him in the
newspapers, signing it. You have him on TV, signing it.''
At every campaign stop, Lavin's staff took Polaroid photos of
the candidate with
his supporters and handed them out for free, further driving home the image that
he is off the podium and in the streets.
``People perceive me as a person who is very close to them, something
president and friend,'' Lavin said Thursday from the front seat of his Honda, on the
way to the southern city of Concepcion, where he officially closed his campaign
as candidate of a coalition of Chile's two main right-wing parties.
Chileans, he added, are tired of traditional politicians who bicker
rather than solving problems like the country's unemployment rate, which at 11
percent is the highest it has been since the early 1980s.
``Chile's problems are no longer ideological, but practical and
concrete,'' he said.
``If people wake up at 5 a.m. to get in line for a hospital appointment, that's not an
Lavin's opponents label him a populist, comparing him to former
President Abdala Bucaram. They claim his promises are empty and say his
popularity is the result of clever marketing.
``Lavin is a great marketing man. He gave the Right a new face,''
Martinez, political consultant to Lavin's top rival, Socialist candidate Ricardo
Lagos. ``But, if you put all his promises together, you'd have to double the fiscal
budget. It's very irresponsible.''
Lavin's aides deny this, claiming their proposals will cost the
the same as proposals by Lagos that include fewer government handouts and
more private-public initiatives like unemployment insurance to which workers
According to the latest polls, Lavin has about 39 percent of the
vote, compared to
Lagos' 45 percent. If Lagos fails to win more than 50 percent Sunday, he and
Lavin will enter a runoff ballot Jan. 16.
Six months ago, few would have guessed that Lavin, whose only
was as mayor of the wealthy Santiago district Las Condes, could garner so much
support. Since former military ruler Augusto Pinochet was voted out of power in a
1988 plebiscite, conservative candidates have performed poorly in presidential
elections: Hernan Bucchi lost to Patricio Aylwin in 1990 with only 29.2 percent of
the vote, and Arturo Alessandri lost to current President Eduardo Frei in 1996 with
only 24.3 percent of the vote.
A weak economy is one reason for the surge in support for Lavin.
country still suffering from the effects of the Asian crisis, Chileans are frustrated
and eager to elect a candidate who promises change.
Copyright 1999 Miami Herald