Chile's right picks presidential candidate, awakens echoes of past

SANTIAGO Wed Jul 24, 2013 8:07am BST

Former Labor Minister and presidential candidate of the conservative right-wing UDI (Democratic Independent Union) party Evelyn Matthei is seen during a campaign rally in Santiago, July 22, 2013. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Former Labor Minister and presidential candidate of the conservative right-wing UDI (Democratic Independent Union) party Evelyn Matthei is seen during a campaign rally in Santiago, July 22, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Ivan Alvarado

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SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chile's right-wing bloc said it chose former labour minister Evelyn Matthei as its presidential candidate, leaving two women whose fathers stood on opposite sides of the country's radical political divide in the 1970s to contest the election.

The splintered Alianza bloc, seeking to avert an electoral disaster in November against popular ex-president Michelle Bachelet, scrambled to find a new candidate after former front-runner Pablo Longueira unexpectedly dropped out last week due to ill health.

The previously reticent centre-right Renovacion Nacional (RN) party said late on Tuesday night it had agreed to back Matthei, a fiery economist chosen on Saturday by the conservative Union Democrata Independiente (UDI).

"Our bloc has gone through tough times these last few months, and it's marvellous that finally... we're putting nobility first and thinking of our country," Matthei told reporters after she received her coalition's backing.

Matthei's candidacy means that the two frontrunners in the Latin American country's November election will both be women.

Centre-left Bachelet is still seen triumphing in the November 17 vote or a potential December 15 runoff, but running two candidates would likely have further diluted the vote of the already weak right-wing coalition.

The two women are understood to have known each other since childhood, and both their fathers were air force generals.

Bachelet's father was loyal to socialist President Salvador Allende, who was removed in a 1973 military coup that ushered in the brutal, 17-year Augusto Pinochet dictatorship. He was subsequently arrested and tortured by Pinochet's agents and died in prison months later.

Matthei's father was a member of Pinochet's junta.

One of the RN's key potential candidate, former defence minister Andres Allamand, said earlier on Tuesday he wouldn't run.

Paediatrician-turned-politician Bachelet, who governed copper powerhouse Chile from 2006 to 2010, has promised to tackle steep economic inequality by raising corporate taxes to work towards funding free university-level education. She also wants to legalize abortion in some cases and reform the dictatorship-era constitution.

While Matthei's program hasn't been unveiled yet, she has broadly backed conservative President Sebastian Pinera's economic policies, and has said she is against free university-level education.

Given Bachelet's likely victory, the right is likely to marshal its resources to gain ground in Congressional elections in a bid to brake her ambitious policy proposals.

(Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by John Stonestreet)

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