"Italian silk suit? $10,000. Luxury leather shoes? $3,500. 24 carat necklace? $7,200. The flag of Chile? Priceless." Parodying the Mastercard advertisement was a neat trick on the part of political opponents: Sebastian Piera made his first fortune bringing credit cards to Chile. But it failed to swing the electorate, says The Sunday Telegraph. After 20 years of centre-left coalition, Chile has made a historic shift to the right, choosing a billionaire businessman who controls a TV station, owns a football club and has been known to flirt with plastic surgery. Remind you of anyone?
Comparisons with the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, don't go down well with Piera's supporters, says The Boston Globe. Neither do claims that he's the "heir" of Chile's last right-wing leader, dictator General Augusto Pinochet. They'd rather paint him as an entrepreneur reformer, along the lines of US Republican Michael Bloomberg.
After two decades of "remarkable" progress under the Concertacin coalition, Piera, 60, is keen not to rock the boat. His action man image (he's an extreme sports enthusiast) helped him see off the coalition's tired old candidate Eduardo Frei. Piera plans to shake up the Chilean economy (see below), but "he's essentially promising more of the same with more efficiency and less corruption".
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Yet the silver-haired magnate, who also controls Chile's flagship carrier LAN Airline, has had his fair share of run-ins with the financial authorities, says The Economist. In 2007, he was fined $700,000 for insider trading, and opponents have accused him of "using his post as a senator to defend his business interests". Piera, who is Chile's third richest man, says that most of his prize assets will either be sold off or placed in a blind trust. But he will need to reassure Chileans that he will "govern in their interests, not his own".
Piera, "whose smile could grace a toothpaste advertisement", is an expert at "turning on the charm", says The Sunday Telegraph. Born into one of an elite handful of intermarried families (his father was an ambassador to Belgium and the UN), he studied for a doctorate in economics at Harvard and spent several years teaching at the University of Chile.
Yet he was always an "inveterate asset trader" who "loves risk", says the Canadian Globe & Mail. After founding the credit-card giant Bancard in the mid-1970s, he was soon "in the thick of a dizzying number of corporate deals". By the time he was elected a senator in 1989, he was seen as "a renaissance man, epitomising a generation of Chilean entrepreneurs" who built Latin America's most successful economy.
Yet a sense of unease persists, says The New York Times. The spectre at the feast is Pinochet. Piera, insisting his outlook is the antithesis of "Pinochetismo", has long distanced himself from the regime. But opponents point out that his brother, Jose, served in Pinochet's cabinet and that the base for his own fortune was built under Pinochet. The chief challenge for Piera, notes the FT, will be to ensure that "this vibrant, open and fast-developing country" doesn't "backslide into the darkness of the past".
Why the urge for change in Chile?
Chile's 16 million inhabitants enjoy the highest living standards in Latin America, says the FT. Why, then, the lust for change? Put it down to dissatisfaction, says The Economist. "The sense of malaise in Chile is as palpable as the snow blanketing the Andes." Business people gripe that under the Concertacin the economy is no longer the most dynamic in South America. There's an urgent need to improve "the dismal quality of education" and invest more in innovation. As Piera declares: "We've gone from the Chilean miracle to the Chilean siesta".
And as memories of Pinochet's violence fade, his regime's "strong economic record has regained appeal", says Martin Hutchinson on Breakingviews. Thanks to a $19bn fund built up from copper exports, Chile proved resilient during the 2008-2009 rout. And a recent average annual growth rate of 4% is nothing to sniff at. But it's still a lower rate than Chile enjoyed during the later Pinochet years. Piera's expectation of increasing GDP growth to 6% through tax incentives, labour market reforms and better education is thus "credible".
Indeed, Piera's victory "could signal a return to something like full-blooded capitalism" not just in Chile, but across Latin America. Success would ensure that "other countries might be less attracted to the socialist populism embodied by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez". Leftist leaders have recently dominated Latin American politics, but if Chile can provide the rest of region with an attractive local example of free-market economic success, it would be good news, "and not just for Chileans".
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