Former president Sebastián Piñera's has scored a resounding victory in Chile presidential run-off election, swinging the country back to the right and highlighting the increasing number of conservative leaders who have won power in Latin America.
With nearly all ballots counted, the billionaire had won 54.6 percent of the votes Sunday to 45.4 percent for former journalist and centre-left Senator Alejandro Guillier. Analysts had predicted a much closer contest, feeling Guillier had gained ground, although there had not been any opinion polls since the election's first round in November.
Piñera, who ran on a platform of boosting sluggish economic growth in the world's top copper producer, thanked his opponents and called for unity.
"Today the voice of all Chileans has been heard," Piñera told supporters Sunday night. "We welcome this triumph with humility and hope."
The results prompted celebrations by Piñera's supporters across the country of 17 million people. Some people waved flags and held banners, while others beeped car horns and yelled out the last name of the former airline magnate who also was president from 2010 to 2014.
Piñera, 68, won last month's first round, but fell far short of what polls had projected. Turnout had been expected to be low for the runoff because in contrast to other regional countries, Chile made voting voluntary rather than mandatory in 2012.
"Piñera managed to gather a big majority of the votes from centre-left candidates" who were in the opening round, said Javier Sajuria, a lecturer in politics at Queen Mary University of London. "What happened here is that Piñera managed to mobilise non-voters in a way that we haven't seen since voluntary voting was started."
Guillier, 64, had received the support of current President Michelle Bachelet, and had vowed to continue her plan to increase corporate taxes to partly finance an education overhaul, reform the Constitution and improve the pension and healthcare system.
But many Chileans have been disillusioned by lagging economic growth during Bachelet's administration, a problem based largely on lower international prices for copper, which is the backbone of Chile's economy. Many also feel she wavered on her promises of profound social changes in labour and education and the vote was largely seen as a referendum on her policies.
Piñera's triumph underscored the fractures in Bachelet's New Majority left-wing coalition and the rise of conservative leaders at the ballot box in recent years in other regional countries, including Argentina, Paraguay and Peru.
"We have suffered a tough defeat," Guillier said. He called for the opposition to "defend" reforms started under Bachelet and vowed to lead a bid for consensus. He said Piñera walked away with "a solid and impeccable triumph."
During his first term as president, Piñera struggled with large protests over Chile's inequality and demands for education reform and left office with low popularity ratings. But he also oversaw annual economic growth of about five percent a year.
He now proposes to slash taxes on business to revive growth and vows to launch a US$14-billion, four-year spending plan that includes fresh investments in infrastructure.
Under a cloud
Voting took place under a sombre cloud Sunday, following the deaths of 11 people and the disappearance of 15 others in a mudslide in a southern town. The picturesque village of Villa Santa Lucia was unable to vote in the run-off.
Analysts had speculated that Guillier could bolster his 22 percent from that round by getting votes from other leftist candidates who were defeated.
But in recent weeks, Piñera had compared Guillier to Nicolás Maduro, the socialist president of crisis-torn Venezuela. At first, that tactic seemed to backfire by rallying support for Guillier from hard-left factions that had been cool on him earlier.
"Fear can be tricky because it tends to demobilise voters," Sajuria said. "But he managed it pretty well ... my impression is that people who were afraid of the outcome voted for him."
Both candidates had projected confidence, with Piñera stating as he cast his ballot: "I have the firm conviction that we are going to win these elections and that better times are going to come for all Chilean households."
With no recent reliable voter surveys in the weeks before Sunday's run-off, however, the outcome had been seen as wide open.
Marco Moreno, of Central University, had called it "the most uncertain election since the return of democracy" after the end of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship in 1990.
Although copper exports, which contribute greatly to Chile's wealth, are increasing thanks to demand from China and from the burgeoning manufacture of electric cars, the country is struggling relative to previous years.
Its GDP, a key measure of economic performance, is forecast to expand a modest 1.4 percent this year, the slowest pace in eight years. Forecasts suggest it will grow 2.8 percent next year.
Piñera and Guillier also both promised to expand free university tuition brought in under Bachelet – a measure with historical resonance in Chile because paid tuition was introduced under Pinochet's 1973-1990 rule.
For Piñera, the vow was a U-turn, contradicting an earlier statement he had made that "free things mean less commitment."
The president-elect was often accompanied by his wife Cecilia Morel while campaigning, and also by their four children and several of their nine grandchildren. Their presence softened his public character, according to a member of his entourage who requested anonymity.
As much as he is known as a demanding businessman – who had to divest investments including an airline and a football team for his first mandate –he also has a reputation for being cultivated, humorous and full of ideas.
Piñera will once again take over from Bachelet, who was barred by the Constitution from running for re-election.
Bachelet and Piñera have tag-teamed the presidency since Bachelet first took office in 2006. Since then, they have alternated in power, switching Chile's politics between centre-left and centre-right each time.