Latin America has seen independent candidates run for office before. They have won in countries like Peru, with Alberto Fujimori and then Alejandro Toledo, and Colombia, with Álvaro Uribe. Caudillos like Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Ecuador's Rafael Correa have bucked entrenched but sclerotic party systems. And leaders of broad movements have brought an end to decades-long single-party rule, as Fernando Lugo did with his victory in Paraguay over the Colorado Party. But something unusual is happening in Chile. In its upcoming presidential election, scheduled for early December, a fresh, young, independent candidate threatens to remove from power one of the most remarkable, stable, and effective governing coalitions in Latin American history.
The Concertación coalition, made up of Socialists and Christian Democrats, has been governing Chile for 20 years, since dictator Augusto Pinochet left office. With its splendid economic management and its successful social policies, it has helped Chile earn the kind of international respect to which a small country is not often entitled. It has elected two Christian Democrats (Patricio Aylwin and Eduardo Frei) to the presidency, and two socialists (Ricardo Lagos and incumbent Michelle Bachelet). Under its stewardship, Chile has become the so-called Third World's greatest economic success story, and is on the verge of graduating—much more than Brazil, currently in vogue, or Mexico, presently in trouble—to developed-country status.
So why is a terribly young (36 years old), irreverent (he has said in the past that he was glad not to be truly Chilean), movie-star-handsome gadfly like Marco Enríquez-Ominami close to overtaking the Concertación? First, because of his talent and biography: he is quick on the uptake, and has had a brief but brilliant career in television and documentaries, and in Congress. His biological father, left-wing guerrilla leader Miguel Enríquez, was killed in a firefight with Pinochet's Army in 1975; his adoptive father, Carlos Ominami, has been a Socialist Party leader, senator, and economics minister for 20 years. His mother, Manuela Gumucio, also springs from a political family and was a top adviser to Lagos's 2000 presidential campaign.
Second, Enríquez-Ominami is exploiting the Concertación fatigue in Chile: people are tired of the same faces, the same discourse, the same policies, now that the early successes are wearing thin. Though Chile has fared relatively well in the world financial crisis, it has suffered. Indeed, it was suffering even before, as growth rates tapered off, and a huge rich-poor gap dating from the Pinochet days proved resistant to pro-equality remedies. Moreover, the Concertación was unable to come up with a better candidate than Frei, 67, who would be returning the family name to La Moneda presidential palace for the third time. The conservative candidate, Sebastián Piñera, while one of the few democratic members of the Chilean right and business community, is one of Chile's wealthiest businessmen, and in this part of the world handing over political power to those who already have a lock on economic power seems risky.
Third, when the Concertación refused to hold primaries—as it had done twice before—to select its candidate, denying the brash outlier a chance to contend, its elders handed Enríquez-Ominami a golden opportunity to run as an independent outsider, with no party, but thousands of supporters.
Will he fade in the homestretch? Perhaps, especially if the electorate suspects that he could not beat Piñera in a runoff. But in current polls he is neck and neck with Frei at about 20 percent of the vote, an extraordinary feat in a country with one of the oldest and deepest party systems in the region. What's more, some surveys suggest that he would fare better than Frei in the second round against the right. To win, he will need to continue to do well in televised debates, where he is much more adept than his rivals. He will have to avoid running out of money—a major concern, as private-sector sources dry up. And he can't stumble: his shoot-from-the-hip responses, his close ties with Cuba, and his constant evasion of substance permanently keep him and his backers on the edge of a cliff. But a victory, or even a strong finish, would be an immensely positive development for Chile and all Latin America, demonstrating that nonparty candidates can compete effectively, and democratically.