Chile Warms To Political Newcomer: Marco Enriquez-Ominami Eyes PresidencyJanuary 31, 2010
A slick-haired upstart with limited political experience is making a surprising run at Chile’s presidency, squeezing his way into what until recently looked to be a two-horse race between graying veterans former President Eduardo Frei (1994-2000) and Sebastian Pinera, the runner-up in the 2006 election.
Two months ago few took Marco Enriquez-Ominami seriously as a legitimate challenger. A first-term deputy known as much for his foray into filmmaking as for his public-service record, the 36-year-old Enriquez-Ominami barely registered in national surveys. Critics were quick to dismiss him as too young, too inexperienced, and more a show-business figure than a serious statesman.
Complicating matters even more for the rookie congressman was his Partido Socialista (PS), which decided early on–-along with the rest of the governing Concertacion coalition–to back Frei. The center-left Concertacion, which has controlled the presidency since Chile returned to democracy in 1990, ties together Frei’s Partido Democrata Cristiano (DC), the PS, the Partido por la Democracia (PPD), and the Partido Radical Social Democrata (PRSD).
Without Concertacion backing, Enriquez-Ominami chose to run as an independent, a decision he formalized June 12, his birthday, by resigning from the PS. History has not been kind to “third-party” candidates. In the last election, Tomas Hirsch of the far-left Juntos Podemos bloc finished way off the mark with 5.4% of the general vote. The result, nevertheless, was considered respectable for an independent, someone representing neither the Concertacion nor its rival coalition, the conservative Alianza.
A final problem for Enriquez-Ominami is that he has yet to actually secure a place on the ballot. To compete in the Dec. 11 election as an independent, the deputy must collect 36,000 signatures from registered, nonaffiliated voters. So far, he has roughly 15,000. He has until mid-September to gather the rest.
Despite obstacles, campaign gains momentum
Yet, with every reason to stumble, Enriquez-Ominami’s candidacy is by all accounts surging. In late April, a survey by the Chilean daily La Tercera showed the deputy for the first time in double digits (10%). The media jumped on the story, helping create a snowball effect that quickly pushed his numbers higher still.
Although he continues to trail Pinera, Enriquez-Ominami is now polling consistently at over 20%. A survey released June 2 by TNS-Time put him at 26%, ahead not only of fringe candidates Jorge Arrate (1.2%), Alejandro Navarro (0.5%), and Adolfo Zaldivar (2%), but also ahead of Frei (22%).
Images of the dark-horse deputy are now ubiquitous in Chile’s mainstream media, which normally shuns outsider candidates. Then again, Enriquez-Ominami is not like other candidates. He is younger, flashier, and arguably more reckless than his rivals. No doubt the media is also attracted to his ties with the entertainment industry. A former television and film director, the congressman is married to a popular Chilean television host.
Enriquez-Ominami also boasts a storybook biography. Exiled in France during his early childhood, he is the son of journalist/author Manuela Gumucio and Miguel Enriquez, who led Chile’s militant Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR) before being killed in 1974 by the secret police of dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990). The candidate’s stepfather, Carlos Ominami, is a member of the Senate.
Yet, even with the constant media exposure, Enriquez-Ominami remains something of a political enigma. Left-wing progressives applaud his take on gay marriage and abortion, both of which he thinks should be made legal. He has also raised eyebrows by calling for the legalization of marijuana.
But Enriquez-Ominami has also challenged the far left’s traditional anti-neoliberal discourse by promoting privatization of certain state holdings. In an interview with LADB, he lashed out at state-owned copper company Corporacion del Cobre (CODELCO), which was nationalized under iconic Marxist President Salvador Allende (1970-1973) and continues to be the government’s single-greatest source of revenue.
“How and where is CODELCO spending its money?” he asked. “No one really knows because it has become such a political hobby horse. And, because there are no private-sector investors involved in CODELCO, the company has lost much of its ability to be competitive. It has ceased to be the world’s largest copper company.”
Enriquez-Ominami offers alternative
Part of Enriquez-Ominami’s attraction, according to political analyst Oscar Godoy, is precisely that willingness to traverse the normal left-right divide. But his surge in the polls–particularly at the expense of Frei–is also indicative of a steady unraveling process taking place within the Concertacion, Godoy explained.
Enriquez-Ominami’s departure from the PS is not, after all, an isolated event. Left-wing presidential candidates Arrate, a government minister in several Concertacion governments, and Navarro, a senator, cut ties with the PS as well. The Concertacion also said goodbye in recent years to Fernando Flores and Zaldivar, veteran senators who both went on to found independent factions.
“This political alliance came together with the goal of restoring democracy, carrying out a transition, and putting government institutions back together. I think it accomplished that goal, which was the cement that held its members together,” said Godoy. “The Concertacion has lost the essential glue that kept it together.”
That’s not to say the Concertacion has lost its sway completely. After struggling earlier in her term, President Michelle Bachelet is suddenly enjoying a sky-high approval rating. Even as the economy staggers and unemployment continues to climb, more than 70% of Chileans applaud her efforts. So far, though, enthusiasm for the outgoing president has yet to rub off on her heir apparent, Frei, whose campaign has failed to generate much excitement among voters.
For Jose Jara, director of the Facultad Latinoamerica de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO), the problem may not be so much the Concertacion’s polling power as its particular choice of candidates. Frei certainly possesses an impressive political pedigree. In addition to a term as president (1994-2000), his resume includes a decade-long run in the Senate. His father, the late Eduardo Frei Montalva, was also president (1964-1970). But the senator’s candidacy also represents a shift to the right, which from a strategic standpoint may have been both unnecessary and unwise, explained Jara.
“For 10 years, we’ve had a center-left government, first with [former President] Ricardo) Lagos (2000–2006) and later with Bachelet,” he said. “What makes sense would have been to have another center-left candidate. The country changed. It shifted toward the center-left. So with Frei as the candidate, there’s a whole sector of center-left voters who don’t feel represented.”
A third possible explanation for Enriquez-Ominami’s rise is that Chilean voters view him not as continuation of the Lagos-Bachelet tradition but rather as a welcome and long-overdue change. A significant sector of voters, in other words, may actually want a third-party candidate–an alternative to the two-coalition system that has dominated for the past 20 years.
“I’d say that the so-called phenomenon, which is my mind isn’t really that at all, has to do with the frustration people feel about being trapped in the straitjacket of the two-bloc system,” said PRSD Sen. Nelson Avila. “Forcing people to choose between two options that increasingly resemble each other produces a backlash that is expressed in candidacies like that of Marco Enriquez-Ominami.” He added, “This is more a protest than a sign of support.”
(This article originally appeared in Latin America Data Base – 2009-06-26)