SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Chile’s presidential election could come down to a nerve-racking, vote-by-vote count Sunday after a late surge by former President Eduardo Frei made his race against billionaire Sebastian Pinera too close to predict.
Pinera led every poll until Frei and outgoing President Michelle Bachelet repeatedly invoked the legacy of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, raising fears of a retreat on human rights if Pinera and his right-wing supporters regain the presidency.
“I want to invite all Chileans to change Chile’s destiny with pencil and paper,” Frei, 67, said near the end, invoking the catchphrase of the 1988 vote that returned democracy to Chile.
The theme put the Harvard-trained economist on the defensive, unsettling a well-organized campaign that had focused on economic growth, jobs and bringing change to a country led by the same group of center-left politicians for 20 years. He urged voters not to lose their hope as the government wages a “campaign of terror.”
With Frei and Pinera agreeing on most government policies — a reflection of the remarkable economic, social and political success that has given Bachelet nearly 80 percent approval ratings as she ends her five-year term — human rights became the wild card.
Bachelet, herself a torture victim, steadfastly supported judicial efforts to resolve crimes against humanity during the 1973-1990 dictatorship, and more than 700 former military and security officials have been put on trial.
But efforts to resolve dictatorship-era rights abuses remain a painful topic around Latin America, and aggressive moves aren’t always popular. Voters in Uruguay rejected an initiative to overturn that country’s amnesty laws last year, even as they elected a former rebel as president. Amnesties also remain in force in Brazil, and while Argentina overturned its amnesty laws, rights trials there have become highly politicized.
The issue came to the forefront of Chile’s presidential campaign last month when a judge concluded that Frei’s father, a Pinochet critic, had been secretly poisoned to death. Bachelet raised it again by inaugurating Chile’s Museum of Memory less than a week before the vote.
And Frei pressed it hard in Wednesday’s televised debate, forcing Pinera to acknowledge that “part of my sector committed errors” during the dictatorship by denying human rights violations even as thousands of Pinochet’s opponents were tortured or killed.
The ruling coalition “may have committed errors, but not horrors,” Frei countered, noting that the death of his father would never have been investigated had the amnesty proposal Pinera made as a senator been approved.
Pinera, 60, said no former Pinochet Cabinet members would serve in his Cabinet, but angry supporters quickly forced him to take back the promise. “Having collaborated loyally and honestly with a government is not a sin or a crime,” he later said.
The key question is whether fears of a retreat on rights cases run deep enough to persuade voters who stayed home during last month’s first-round election to show up Sunday. Most of those who abstained are leftists, and if enough of them vote this time, Pinera would lose his edge.
Pinera’s 15-point lead in December dropped to 1.8 percent, according to a nationwide poll published Wednesday by the independent firm Market Opinion Research International, which showed him leading by 50.9 percent to 49.1 percent for Frei. But the 3 percentage point error margin made the race anybody’s guess.
Both sides ordered party representatives to scrutinize Sunday’s vote count, and to challenge questionable paper ballots. Pinera had lawyers staff a hotline for challenges, and Frei’s campaign was focusing its watchdog efforts on precincts where Pinera had a first-round advantage.
Pinera put his PhD in economics to use popularizing credit cards in Chile, growing a fortune that now includes a large share of Chile’s main airline, a leading television channel and the country’s most popular soccer team. He said the government has “run out of gas,” and that he would create a million jobs and double the Chile’s median income of $12,000 a year.
Frei’s 1995-2000 term was rather unremarkable and many leftists preferred the more dynamic Marco Enriquez-Ominami, who came in third in the first round and tepidly endorsed Frei last week, saying the right should be kept from the presidency.
Chile’s population is nearly 17 million, but only 8.3 million are registered to vote, and fewer than 760,000 new voters have been added in the last 21 years under a system that makes voting mandatory for life for those who register.
Frei has promised to make a priority of Enriquez-Ominami’s proposal to make registration automatic and voting optional, but for now, the rolls are dominated by older Chileans with personal memories of the dictatorship.
Associated Press Writers Eva Vergara and Federico Quilodran in Santiago, Chile contributed to this story.