ME-O bids adieu-o

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Juan Cristobal says: Chile held the first round of Presidential voting yesterday, and since I’m married to the place Quico asked me to pitch in. While most news services focused on the strong showing of right-wing billionaire Sebastián Piñera and the stiff problems facing the governing Concertación coalition, to me the real story was the abject failure of the two chavista options.

Of the four candidates, two represented variations of the chavista movement. Communist party candidate Jorge Arrate did not hide his sympathy for the Venezuelan strongman. The links between his party and our government run deep, something I witnessed first-hand on numerous occasions. Yet Arrate, polling at 6%, was never a threat.

The real chance for the chavista option came thanks to the at-times surging candidacy of independent congressman Marco Enríquez-Ominami.

ME-O, as he is commonly known, saw his chances grow quickly in the middle of the year as the ruling Concertación candidate, former President Eduardo Frei, languished. A filmmaker by trade, ME-O once gushed about making a documentary centered on Hugo Chávez and he has served as an observer in Venezuelan elections, where he thought everything was excessively normal.

Of course, in a conservative country like Chile, a full on chavista candidate will always face long odds. So ME-O decided to “Correa-size” his chavista past, wrapping it in an attractive package of rebellious populism, rive gauche lefty promises, and pledges of change and “participatory democracy,” including a proposal for a Constitutional Assembly. ME-O’s curious approach to “moderate chavismo” included criticisms of Chávez’s “style” but the endorsement of scandalous policies such as the closure of RCTV.

For a while, it seemed like it could work. The young ME-O surged on the strength of a few high-profile endorsements, and thanks to his appeal to a pseudo-intellectual middle class tired of the same-old faces and smitten by the malaise of politics where the big issues have largely disappeared.

But it only went so far. One of the biggest hits to his candidacy was when opposition research unearthed a three-year old interview, where ME-O called being Chilean “a tragedy” and longed for French or Italian nationality.

ME-O’s 20 percent is a much worse showing than was feared, and barely reaches the level of “political phenomenon.” He tried to be Hugo Chávez, but he’s stuck in Ross Perot territory. Even more damning, ME-O managed to score not a single member of Congress. Like the petulant child raised-by-Paris-lefties that he is, he refused to endorse Frei or Piñera, accusing them of being agents of the past.

The Chilean election has several interesting stories: the renaissance of Chile’s right-wing after twenty years and the seeming demise of Latin America’s most succesful democratic coalition are two of the most important ones. But this script is yet to be written, in a runoff scheduled to take place in mid-January.

For now, the real story is yet another big defeat for the Espada de Bolívar movement in one of the continent’s most significant countries. News organizations love to talk about a “wave of leftist sentiment” sweeping Latin America. Chile is sitting out the narrative, at least this time.

In Chile, the story is ME-O, the phenomenon that wasn’t.

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