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Cablegate: Sunday's Chilean Presidential Election: Pinera Appears

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UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 SANTIAGO 000021

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV CI
SUBJECT: Sunday's Chilean Presidential Election: Pinera Appears
Poised to Win, though Lead May be Shrinking

REF: A) 09 SANTIAGO 755; B) 09 SANTIAGO 899; C) 09 SANTIAGO 1208
D) 09 SANTIAGO 947; E) SANTIAGO 7

1. (SBU) Summary: Opposition candidate Sebastian Pinera leads
government candidate Eduardo Frei by 2-6 points just days before
the January 17 presidential runoff election. Although the most
recent (and only nationwide) poll shows the two in a statistical
dead heat, Pinera and his campaign exude confidence while the Frei
campaign is looking anxious. End Summary.

Polls Shows Pinera In the Lead, But is Frei Closing the Gap?

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2. (U) Polls released since the first round presidential
election, held on December 13, have consistently shown Pinera
ahead, although the most recent--and only nationwide--poll suggests
that Frei has cut that lead to within striking distance. Just
days before the presidential run-off scheduled for January 17, a
poll released January 13 shows conservative opposition candidate
Sebastian Pinera (Ref A) ahead of governing Concertacion coalition
candidate Eduardo Frei (Ref B) by less than 2 points. The
difference is well within the 3 point margin of error of the
nation-wide poll. Issued by left-leaning pollster Marta Lagos'
firm MORI, the poll includes rural voters, who tend to favor Frei,
and is based on face-to-face interviews, considered more reliable
than telephone polling. However, other polls, conducted by
different polling firms and released on December 18, December 19,
and January 10, all showed Pinera with a sizeable 5 to 6 point
lead. These earlier polls were conducted only in major cities and
were done by phone--both measures which tend to favor Pinera.

3. (U) The MORI poll shows that Frei has managed to substantially
close the gap since his poor showing in the December 13 first-round
elections, where he garnered only 29.6 percent to Pinera's 44
percent (Ref C). However, most observers -- and Pinera advisors --
believe that he has the votes to win (Ref D) even as this latest
poll data shows the candidates heading into a statistical
dead-heat. Other aspects of the poll point to a Pinera victory as
well. When asked who they thought would win the January 17
election, 51 percent of voters said they thought Pinera would win,
while only 31 percent said it would go for Frei. Polls have shown
all year long that Chileans believe Pinera is most likely to be
their next president, and many Frei supporters grudgingly
acknowledge that this election may usher in the first conservative
government in Chile since the 1989 transition to democracy. Press
reports that the Concertacion is making contingency plans for a
possible defeat add to the sense that the Concertacion era may be
ending.

Marco Enriquez -Ominami Supports "'the 29 Percent Candidate"

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4. (U) After a month of rumors and endless speculation in the
blogosphere, former independent progressive presidential candidate
Marco Enriquez-Ominami, who came in third in December's first-round
election with 20 percent, publicly backed Eduardo Frei on January
13. However, he did so in the weakest possible terms.
Enriquez-Ominami did not even mention Frei by name and instead
emphasized Frei's poor showing in the first round, saying "I will
vote for the candidate who received 29 percent of the vote." At
the same time, Enriquez-Ominami forcefully criticized the
conservatives and their ties to the Pinochet-era, stating that "An
abyss separates us from the candidacy of the right (Pinera). They
filled our country with grief and were the accomplices of those who
assassinated my father." (Note: Enriquez-Ominami's father Miguel
Enriquez, who founded the Leftist Revolutionary Movement, MIR, was
killed by dictatorship security forces in 1976. End note.)

SANTIAGO 00000021 002 OF 003


5. (U) While many prominent Enriquez-Ominami supporters have come
out individually in favor of Frei -- including Enriquez-Ominami's
adoptive father Senator Carlos Ominami -- others have endorsed
Pinera. Enriquez-Ominami's own endorsement was strictly personal
and an explicit vote against the right, rather than a vote for
Frei. His message to those who voted for him in December was, "You
are the only judges of your conscience and your vote."

6. (U) Political analysts argue that Enriquez-Ominami's begrudging
endorsement is an attempt to shield him from being blamed for a
Frei loss -- especially in the eyes of loyal Concertacion voters --
while situating him as the progressive opposition figure against a
conservative Pinera government. This would place him in a position
to run again for president in 2013. (Note: Pundits are already
speculating that current President Michelle Bachelet, who is
leaving office with approval ratings of a never-before-seen 81
percent, will be the center-left candidate in 2013. End note).
Enriquez-Ominami also recently announced the founding of a new
political party (Ref E), something that will require some time --
and citizen signatures -- to get off the ground.

Pinera Finalized an Error-Free Campaign, Frei's Still Lackluster

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-------------

7. (SBU) Frei and Pinera finalized their campaigns on January 14,
the final day to hold electoral activities before the January 17
presidential run-off election. Frei chose to hold his campaign
closure in a poor neighborhood in the Santiago metropolitan region
and appeal to traditional Concertacion voters. Pinera headed to
the southern city of Concepcion in a last bid to pick up
Enriquez-Ominami voters. (Note: Enriquez-Ominami's famous
revolutionary father, Miguel Enriquez, was a native son of
Concepcion. End note.) Most analysts characterize the Pinera
campaign, including the candidate's performance in the last
televised debate on January 11, as error-free. Frei's campaign
needed to generate a new buzz during the run-up to the second
round. Despite adding key up-and-coming younger politicians to his
campaign front-line and performing reasonably well in the debate,
his campaign is characterized as not able to produce the crucial
"knock-out" performance.

Spoiled Ballets and Abstentions Could Be Key

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8. (SBU) In December's first-round, 3.45 percent of voters either
spoiled their ballot or left it blank. Nearly 13 percent of voters
abstained, even though voting is mandatory. In the MORI poll
released January 13, seven percent of voters said they planned to
spoil their ballot. Low turnout and protest votes will help
Pinera, who had a large head start after the first round and
therefore needs to add far fewer additional votes to cross the 50
percent threshold. The sense of triumph exuded by the Pinera camp
may also discourage anti-Pinera voters from turning out to vote.
On the other hand, as political analysts point out, now that the
vote is looking closer, many voters that expected to abstain or
issue a protest vote -- or Concertacion supporters that assumed
Pinera would win no matter what -- may show up and mark a
preference because they would feel that their vote could really
matter in such a close election. For this reason, President
Bachelet explicitly endorsed Frei on January 14 and called for
Chileans to not spoil their ballot or leave it blank.

Comment:

------------

SANTIAGO 00000021 003 OF 003


9. (SBU) With the election just days away, the Pinera campaign is
exuding confidence while the Frei campaign looks anxious. It is
possible that Frei could win, but would be a big surprise for most
election observers. Currently, speculation is less on who will win
than Pinera's likely victory margin. Pinera campaign advisors
predict he will gain a healthy margin of victory of at least three
to four percentage points. A tight winning margin for Pinera,
particularly if the number of spoiled ballots and abstentions is
high, could be seen as reducing his mandate, but even so a
center-right victory after 20 years of Concertacion presidencies
would be a landmark event in Chile. End Comment.
SIMONS

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