SANTIAGO: After a hard-fought electoral battle, Chile has a new president. On Sunday, Ricardo Lagos, the socialist leader, defeated his conservative challenger Joaquin Lavin, by 190,000 votes, the smallest margin of any presidential election since Chile's return to democracy.
During the five weeks leading to the second-round vote, Mr. Lagos ran an extraordinarily effective campaign. Stunned by Mr. Lavin's success in the first round, Mr. Lagos was forced to rethink his strategy. His characteristically intellectual rhetoric was replaced by simple and direct appeals to the electorate. By surrounding himself by a group of young technocrats, he injected a badly needed sense of modernity into the campaign. The new members of his team were quick to distance themselves from some of the most controversial and confrontational elements of the Socialist's program, including proposed legislation that would greatly increase the power of labor unions, hurting Chile's ability to compete internationally and reducing its economic growth potential.
What is surprising about the electoral result is not that Mr. Lagos won (after all he was the favorite all along), but that Mr. Lavin was able to mount such an effective challenge. For the first time since the 1930s, Chile's right emerged as a serious political option with voter appeal. Mr. Lavin obtained a remarkable 48.7% of the vote by campaigning as an efficient, issue-oriented politician that was not influenced by ideology or the petty political quarrels of the past. Gradually his campaign captured the imagination of an increasing number of Chileans. He was particularly effective among women and the young.
If Chile's rightist political parties want to capitalize on Mr. Lavin's popularity, they must show that they have moved away from their bedrock conservative ideology and have become pragmatic, modern, and issue oriented. If the right fails to convince voters that it has, in fact, moved in this direction, it is likely to go back to its traditional 30% of the vote. If, on the other hand, it demonstrates that it has embraced the new type of politics espoused by Mr. Lavin, it could make considerable gains in upcoming municipal and congressional elections. It may even gain the presidency in 2006.