Trade Blows In First Debate

With an audience more suited to a soccer game than civil discourse, the first televised presidential debate kicked off at the TVN television studio Wednesday night.

The crowd, made up of supporters and invited guests from the (now) four presidential candidates, at times grew so loud that they drowned out the candidates while speaking.

The decision by candidate Sen. Alejandro Navarro to leave the race is expected to have little impact on the Dec. 13 election (Ed. Note: See related story in today’s ST).

The presidential contest is currently led by businessman Sebastian Piñera of the rightist Alianza coalition, who is polling in the mid-30s.  Pinera is followed in the polls by Sen. Eduardo Frei of the governing Concertación coaltion, who is polling about 25 percent of the vote; independent candidate Dep. Marcos Enriquez-Ominami with 20 percent and Juntos Podemos (Communist Party candidate) Jorge Arrate with about two

Wednesday evening’s debate, which began with the theme “Country,” asked each candidate about their ideas to stem drug trafficking, increasing access to credit for small and medium businesses and improving the disparity between public and private education in Chile.

Every response from any candidate was greeting with loud heckling or cheering, as each candidate’s fan group attempted to outdo the previous, including singing campaign jingles and pounding on the studio’s bleachers with their feet.

The night was also not without its comedy. A comment by conservative businessman candidate Sebastián Piñera brought a round of laughter after he declared that the country needed more entrepreneurs that “know to respect the rights of workers.”

The debate heated up in the second round, when each candidate was assigned a topic and told to give three proposals for reform. Sen. Eduardo Frei, candidate for the ruling center-left Concertación coalition, was assigned the “corruption” topic (prompting a low “ooo” from the crowd). After laying out plans to revitalize the pharmaceutical and banking sectors, among others, he accused Piñera of what he considered questionable business practices and a misuse of information.

“Today we heard a report from Transparency International that makes a very serious charge on the candidate from the right for use of privileged information,” Frei said. “Transparency International is an organization recognized worldwide. Today this says clearly that here there was use of privileged information, and that this put in debate the transparency and credibility of the Chilean system.”

Frei referred to the 2007 purchase of 3 million shares of stock in LAN Airlines, which Piñera owns, the day before the company disclosed its financial information. The Superintendent of Security and Insurance levied a CH$350,000,000 (US$650,000) fine against Piñera, which he paid.

Piñera responded minutes later in the debate when asked about something else, and flatly denied ever misusing such information. “I want to tell Senator Frei that he cannot be so irresponsible and avoid the truth, as he just did,” Piñera said. “I have never used privileged information and nobody has ever accused me of it, and I hope he apologizes.”

Independent candidate Marco Enríquez-Ominami also accused both Frei and Piñera of failing to fully disclose their full campaign spending amounts. Piñera denied this in a later question, while Frei simply ignored it.

Jorge Arrate, candidate from the Juntos Podemos party, thanked Enríquez-Ominami later for this.

“I want to thank the delicacy of Marco not to ask me about my spending, because the problem that I have is that I haven’t any money to spend,” he said to a round of laughter.

By Daniel Zarchy ( editor@santiagotimes.clThis e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it )

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