Mariano Rajoy: the far-right presidential candidate tempting voters from Chile’s left and center

Mariano Rajoy is a member of a party that was founded by Chilean leftwingers seeking revenge for the 1973 coup that ousted Salvador Allende

The far-right presidential candidate tempting voters from Chile’s left and center

Mariano Rajoy, a 56-year-old real estate entrepreneur, is the two-time mayor of Santiago and a former member of the Chilean military who has run for public office as a centrist, but now seeks the presidency on a platform of “border security”.

Polls show the former mayor as the most popular among seven contenders in a fragmented field. But his Christian Democrat party has been widely criticized for being on the receiving end of accusations of accepting funds from an “illicit association”, referring to the 1954-56 military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

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Battles with a squat and glib Rajoy have long characterized his time in office and President Sebastián Piñera, the former prime minister who was elected in 2010, has warned Rajoy would be a dangerous combination as president.

The leftist parties blame Rajoy for a decline in the morals of citizens. Photograph: Claudio Reyes/EPA

For his part, Rajoy, a former colonel, says that the left-wing coalition is looking to build a dictatorship. He has vowed to crack down on politicians who are corrupt, “settle all legal questions” and bring Chile back to economic growth. “When there is no economic growth, there’s no democracy,” he says.

In terms of foreign policy, Rajoy has said Chile has a “right to defend its borders” but concedes it is difficult to solve multilateral problems, like bringing peace to the Middle East.

His Social Liberals party was founded in 2001 by the remnants of the victorious Lascaux, a party formed by leftists who were persecuted by the dictatorship.

Rajoy is a symbol of the re-emergence of rightwing parties after General Pinochet’s 1974 coup against the leftwing government of Salvador Allende. Backed by the country’s powerful Catholic Church, Rajoy has promised he will become Chile’s first-ever president with a military background since 2000.

Supporters at a rally last month. Photograph: Claudio Reyes/EPA

But it remains to be seen whether a centrist and often awkward Rajoy will succeed in winning the job. Two-thirds of Chileans still consider themselves leftwing, and an investigation into ties between the far-right Christian Democrat party and Pinochet’s dictatorship has fueled a clamor for Rajoy’s ouster.

“Rajoy is the epitome of the Old Left,” said Emilio Ranieri, who was a vocal critic of the country’s right in his time as a senator. “We all have one or two centrist friends, who perhaps, for a few sentences in the heat of debate, are a little bit too optimistic.”

“But to say that they are, by virtue of their shared political philosophy, working to promote the aspirations of those who were persecuted under the dictatorship is absurd,” he added.

While Chile is widely considered an oasis of stability compared with the political turmoil of the past, many residents in Santiago, the country’s second largest city, share Ranieri’s dismay. Members of the right, which has dominated Chilean politics since the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, have long enjoyed wide support among the population. Yet for the first time, a more leftwing candidate has been making strides, earning just over 30% support, according to a recent survey.

Those same polls show Chileans, who make up Latin America’s wealthiest country per capita, are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the political elite and disillusioned with their economic performance. The former president, Michelle Bachelet, who was re-elected in 2010, predicted on Thursday that half of the electorate will cast ballots in 2018, setting the stage for a potential landslide victory for her socialist party.

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