BY ANDREA ELLIOTT
SANTIAGO, Chile -- Chile's two leading presidential candidates
were almost tied
in the first official returns Sunday night, with Socialist Ricardo Lagos one
percentage point ahead of his conservative rival Joaquin Lavin.
With about 20 percent of the votes tallied, Lagos had 48 percent,
and Lavin, 47. If
neither candidate wins more than 50 percent, a Jan. 16 run-off will decide the
No Chilean presidential election has been closer or fiercer since
Pinochet was ousted in a 1988 plebiscite. Lagos and Lavin have been close to a
tie in the polls for months, with no clear winner in the horizon.
``This is a closer election than we had anticipated, but so far,
the winner is
Ricardo Lagos,'' said Jaime Estevez, Lagos' deputy campaign manager.
Six months ago, Lagos had a sizable lead over Lavin in the polls,
but a weak
economy may have triggered a backlash against the ruling coalition, resulting in a
surge of support for Lavin. Copper prices plunged to an all-time low this year, and
the Asian crisis pulled Chile into its first recession since 1983. The economy,
which had sustained an average of 7 percent growth for 15 years, will shrink by 1
percent this year.
Unemployment surged to 11 percent, with 700,000 people out of
work -- the
highest number in a decade. On top of that, a drought triggered months of
electrical blackouts, further dampening the country's mood.
``This year has been fatal,'' said Lagos advisor Javier Martinez.
Both Lagos and Lavin ran centrist campaigns, promising to continue
free-market policies that, until this year, made Chile the fastest growing economy
in Latin America. Both candidates said they would bring the country back to
previous growth and vowed to create hundreds of thousands of jobs.
But in response to Chile's unequal income distribution, one of
the worst in Latin
America, Lagos and Lavin outlined new spending programs to close the gap
between the rich and poor. Lagos, 61, a former minister of education and public
works under the two Concertacion governments, proposed to double government
expenditure on schools in low-income areas, regulate health care and create
Lavin, the former mayor of Santiago's wealthiest suburb, Las Condes,
ran on the
slogan ``Long Live Change,'' claiming the Concertacion (the four-party coalition)
that has governed Chile in the '90s, would never fix what it had failed to fix in the
10 years it has ruled Chile. He called himself the ``poor person's president,'' and
proposed a day-care program for under-privileged mothers, and funding to allow
the poor access to private hospitals.
Pinochet's arrest and absence from Chile was a nonissue in the
was Lagos' affiliation with the Socialist party, whose last president, Salvador
Allende, was ousted by Pinochet in a 1973 coup.
Lagos, who received a Ph.D. in economics from Duke University,
said he would
be the Concertacion's third president, not Chile's second socialist president.
As a result of Pinochet's absence and the wave of prosecutions
it triggered in
Chile, Lavin, 46, became the first conservative candidate to address the topic of
human rights. A member of the Democratic Independent Union, a right-wing party
that supported Pinochet's military government, Lavin visited with some of the
relatives of the roughly 3,000 people ``disappeared'' or killed under Pinochet and
said Chile needed to heal its wounds and move on.
Lavin's critics have labeled him a populist but admit that his
surge in support was
the result of a clever and effective campaign which they estimate had 10 times the
funding of Lagos'. Taking cues from American campaigns, Lavin became popular
after walking the streets of small towns across Chile. In each geographic region,
he signed contracts akin to Newt Gingrich's ``Contract with America.''
While they appeared similar on several political fronts, Lagos
and Lavin were
divided over Pinochet's 1980 constitution, which gives conservatives the authority
to appoint senators who give the right-wing opposition a majority in the upper
house of Congress. Lagos vowed to continue the Concertacion's long-standing
attempt to change the constitution and make Chile's government more
Copyright 1999 Miami Herald