The Miami Herald
December 11, 1999
Lavin shaking up Chilean politics


 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 Contreras, who
 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 and polo
 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 between
 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 over ideology
 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
 ideological problem.''

 Lavin's opponents label him a populist, comparing him to former Ecuadorean
 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,'' said Javier
 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 government about
 the same as proposals by Lagos that include fewer government handouts and
 more private-public initiatives like unemployment insurance to which workers
 would contribute.

 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 elective office
 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. With the
 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