After Breakaway, Moderate Chilean Elected Politician Is Taking on Maximalist Liberal Candidate

As Chile’s presidential elections loom, an unusual candidate is engaging voters on the far-right.

Eduardo Montealegre, a 61-year-old rancher, presented his platform in a small auditorium in Santiago’s historic downtown square on Jan. 11. For a candidate for the Radical Party, which broke away from the ruling coalition in 2015, that sounded a lot like a campaign address by outgoing President Michelle Bachelet.

Montealegre is polling first in first-round voting for the Feb. 4 election. If the pollsters are right, he could end up taking 30 percent of the vote and then win the run-off on Feb. 17.

That would vault him from obscurity into the ranks of front-runners in a country that has long been dominated by the liberal center-left.

For Montealegre, the goal is to revitalize Chile’s conservative agenda and defend conservative policies. It’s a campaign that has seen the former mayor of Santiago give up nearly everything to run, from his spacious home to his beloved hunting dogs. He lacks experience and has no national profile, having never run for office before. But Montealegre is seen as in tune with the embittered voters who feel the Bachelet administration has been run by elitists and pampered bureaucrats.

“The radical party represents the future, the hope for a country that does not suffer from all the self-flagellation,” Montealegre said. “We want a Chile that doesn’t live only from complaints, but from acts of greatness.”

He has shifted his focus from defending his party to promising to change Chile’s constitution if elected by renegotiating the current one, which the center-left sought to implement after winning its last election. As president, Montealegre would hold a referendum to discuss changes to the constitution but choose what changes he wants to make himself, he said.

He said he wanted to modify articles in the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet that he said banned him from running for president in 1989, but his candidacy has since been ruled out because he has never taken military service.

Montealegre’s ultraconservative platform hasn’t won over many on the left, which sees him as too radical and a threat to human rights. Social Democratic Party leader Pablo Solon called Montealegre a “denier of the far right and of democracy.”

The political tension is coming at a time when economic growth is slowing and unemployment remains high. The tax and welfare reform that Bachelet pushed through Congress last year has caused street protests.

Despite frequent demonstrations, polls suggest Bachelet is still more popular than either of her two main rivals in the race.

She used Montealegre’s appearance to slam his policies and his penchant for glitzy receptions. Bachelet noted that Montealegre uses his home to host celebrity guests, then used the litany of celebrities who have been invited, including U.S. pop singer John Mayer, to criticize Montealegre’s plan to revise the constitution.

“A government whose first thing will be to consult politicians and celebrities does not have the courage to listen to the people,” Bachelet said.

However, most Chileans seem to view Montealegre as a serious contender and don’t like Bachelet’s policies that include unpopular increases in corporate taxes.

“I think he’ll get 40 or 40-something percent in the first round,” said Alberto Caso, a 60-year-old optician who plans to vote for Montealegre. “Then the majority will decide between a president who has only been in charge of the legislature and doesn’t have the experience and a president like me who has been in presidential campaigns before.”

Polls suggest that nearly half of Chileans disapprove of Bachelet’s government and almost as many would like to change the constitution so that there is a more proportional voting system. Such an election system would make it harder for Bachelet to win a second term.

It’s not yet clear how many voters actually support Montealegre, but the shrewd politician is leaving no stone unturned in this campaign. For weeks, Montealegre has been traveling around Chile visiting more than a dozen parties and political parties, seeking their support.

He’s also been taunting Bachelet as she runs unopposed on the center-left ticket in the election, and showing up at her frequent political events wearing a big red lapel pin and black sunglasses to look cool.

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