SANTIAGO, Chile – Billionaire Sebastian Pinera won Chile's election on Sunday, becoming the nation's first democratically elected right-wing president in 52 years.
The ruling coalition's candidate, Eduardo Frei, conceded defeat after 60 percent of polling stations reported a 52 percent to 48 percent advantage for Pinera, ending two decades of center-left rule since the end of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship.
"Chile is much better than the country we recieved in 1990," Frei said. "We will be guardians of liberty and of all our social victories."
Pinera had a wide lead in every poll, and the race only tightened after Frei and outgoing President Michelle Bachelet repeatedly invoked the legacy of Pinochet, whose dictatorship was supported by the parties that make up Pinera's coalition.
But many leftists have become disenchanted after two decades with the same group of politicians in power, and Frei's effort to raise fears of a retreat on human rights failed to persuade enough of them to vote against Pinera.
Pinera, a Harvard-trained economist, focused his campaign on hopes for change, promising to create a million jobs and double Chile's per-capita income of $12,000 a year by expanding the country's growth to 6 percent a year.
Pinera voters included Tatiana Cantillana, a 57-year-old nurse's aide who hoped a Pinera victory would reduce corruption. "There has to be a change so that they stop stealing," she said.
Frei and Pinera agreed on most issues — a reflection of the remarkable economic, social and political success that has given Bachelet nearly 80 percent approval ratings as she ends her term — making human rights the wild card.
Bachelet, herself a torture victim, supported judicial efforts to resolve crimes against humanity, and more than 700 former military and security officials have been put on trial.
But dictatorship-era rights abuses remain a painful topic around Latin America, and societies remain divided over reopening old wounds. Voters in Uruguay decidedly upheld amnesty in November, even as they elected a former rebel as president. Brazil's amnesty law remains in force, and in Argentina, rights trials have become highly politicized.
Human rights came to the forefront 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" by denying that crimes were happening 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 his father's death would not have been investigated had the amnesty Pinera proposed as a senator been approved.
Pinera said no former Pinochet Cabinet members would serve in his Cabinet, but angry supporters 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.
Pinera, 60, put his Ph.D. 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 median income of $12,000 a year.
Frei, 67, had a rather unremarkable 1994-2000 term and many leftists preferred the more dynamic Marco Enriquez-Ominami, who came in third last month and tepidly endorsed Frei only last week.
Only 8.3 million of Chile's nearly 17 million people are registered to vote.