By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 13, 1999; Page A19
SANTIAGO, Chile, Dec. 12—After a surprisingly strong showing for
Chilean conservatives in presidential elections tonight, right-of-center
economist Joaquin Lavin forced a runoff race next month with Socialist
Ricardo Lagos, a dissident during the military dictatorship of Augusto
With 99.33 percent of the ballots counted, the two were virtually tied.
Lagos, also an economist, had 47.96 percent of the vote, compared to
47.52 percent for Lavin, a former supporter of Pinochet who has now
largely disavowed the ex-dictator. That's the strongest showing for a
right-wing presidential candidate in decades.
Four other candidates had small percentages. But since no candidate won
a majority of the vote, the winner will be determined by a final round of
voting Jan. 16. Recent opinion polls had predicted that a second round
would be required, but Lagos was widely expected to win the first round
by at least 3 percentage points.
Lagos, 61, is trying to become Chile's first Socialist president since
Salvador Allende was overthrown by Pinochet in 1973. Lavin, 46, an
economist educated at the University of Chicago who has successfully
portrayed himself as nontraditional centrist, is trying to break down Chile's
"Tonight were are witnessing the birth of a new kind of political system,
country without a right or a left, no fights between the rich and poor, a
country at peace," Lavin said.
In a country where the right wing was long equated with the oppression
Pinochet, the strength of Lavin's candidacy seemed to shock both Lagos's
camp and the nation. But after 10 years of rule by the center-left
Concertacion coalition that Lagos's Socialists now lead, voters responded
to Lavin's populism, nationalism and promise to close the gap between the
rich and poor and to fight poverty.
Critics have said that those promises will be difficult to deliver, considering
that his base is rooted in the wealthy right-wing elite. Many of Lavin's core
backers also continue to embrace the legacy of Pinochet's brutal regime.
Lagos had put many of the same issues at the center of his campaign, but
Lavin was better able to deliver with youthful, energetic, grass-roots
campaigning backed by an estimated $40 million-war chest--several times
that of Lagos's. Lavin's message appeared to strike a chord, especially
with young voters and conservative members of the governing coalition.
Lagos made a public appearance tonight well before the vote counting was
finished to appeal to Chileans--especially the members of his governing
coalition who had clearly broken ranks to vote for Lavin. "We need to
unite all Chileans who want equality and . . . who want to leave behind a
Chile controlled by a [elite] minority of the people," he said.
But Lagos's lieutenants acknowledged that the campaign needed a
jump-start to compete with Lavin's slick, well-scripted and aggressive
campaign. "We need to strengthen the [details of the campaign] and it's
been late, and we're going to do it now," said Sen. Sergio Bitar, a member
of the left-wing Party for Democracy and a close Lagos ally.
Next month's winner will replace President Eduardo Frei, the outgoing
president from the centrist Christian Democrats.
The race marked the first time a presidential election has gone to a second
round since the end of Pinochet's dictatorship in 1990, when the current
electoral system was put in place. The race has become the subject of
international focus as Pinochet sits under house arrest in London fighting
extradition to Spain, where a magistrate wants him tried for crimes
committed during his regime. More than 3,000 dissidents disappeared or
were killed during Pinochet's 17-year rule.
But the campaign was defined by the candidates' views on domestic issues
such as unemployment and education. Analysts suggested tonight that
Lagos, who only a few months ago enjoyed a large lead in opinion polls,
perhaps focused too much on lofty ideals such as human rights and the
need to deepen democracy, which is still limited by a constitution drafted
during Pinochet's tenure.
Lavin tried to shift what he called "political issues" to the periphery
national agenda, arguing that the government should focus more on
improving efficiency and fighting unemployment.
Although Lavin clearly has the momentum going into the second round,
some analysts said Lagos may be helped if he takes at least a portion of
the 3.19 percent of the vote won by Communist candidate Gladys Marin,
who finished a distant third.
Marin has urged her Communists to cast blank ballots to protest Lagos's
embrace of the free market and his rejection of negotiations with the
Communist Party. Analysts said such talk would cost Lagos support of
members of the centrist Christian Democrats, the largest party in his
"I see Lagos as getting stronger in the second round," said Enrique Correa,
a Santiago-based political analyst. "Lavin has run a smart campaign, but I
think Lagos has been able to generate more faith in the people."
Lagos and Lavin have both pledged to forge ahead with Chile's free
market economy, which has become a model in the developing world but
this year, along with much of the rest of Latin America, sunk into its worse
recession in a decade. Both candidates have also focused on the need to
close the vast chasm between the rich and the poor, which has widened in
this country of 12 million even as Chile posted record economic growth
this decade. However, they have disagreed on how best to accomplish
Though Lagos is a Socialist, his policies bear almost no resemblance to
those of Allende, who advocated land seizures and the nationalization of
private industry. Lagos has stressed the need to reinforce the state's role in
society, arguing that the free market has not succeeded in creating a more
Lagos, who earned a doctorate in economics from Duke University, made
history in the late 1980s as one of the only dissidents bold enough to
challenge Pinochet publicly. During a national plebiscite on whether
Pinochet's rule would last another six years, Lagos denounced the dictator
on national television. Soon after, Chilean voters overwhelmingly rejected
Pinochet's rule, and the military leader stepped down in 1990.
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