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Voters from Chile to Brazil reject the status quo

Opposition and independent groups in Chile, Colombia, and Brazil gained ground in weekend elections, reflecting discontent with the governing administrations in the nations.

But with the right advancing in Chile and leftist and independent elements scoring big wins in Colombia and Brazil, the only trend seems to be dissatisfaction of varying degree with the status quo, whether right, center or left.

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"Civil society is saying [at the ballot box that] the political groups have to listen to them," says Guillermo Holzmann, a political scientist at the University of Chile in Santiago. "Civil society is saying they want concrete solutions to their problems."

In Colombia, dissatisfaction with President Andres Pastrana and his Conservative Party motored key wins by independent and some Liberal Party hopefuls in municipal and provincial elections. Patricio Gajardo, adjunct director of the University of Chile's Political Science Institute, cites discontent stemming from Mr. Pastrana's continued inability to pacify the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group.

In Brazil, the leftist Workers Party won the mayor's race in So Paulo and several other key cities. That, says Prof. Holzmann, underscores calls among the poor for centrist President Fernando Henrique Cardoso to pay more attention to them instead of ongoing efforts to jumpstart the economy through industrialization and other neoliberal measures.

The center-left Concertacin coalition in Chile, which has governed the nation since 1990, actually garnered over 52 percent of the vote in municipal ballots, prompting sighs of relief from group leaders who feared getting less than half the votes.

But the Alliance for Chile coalition, a center-right grouping, got a little more than 40 percent of the vote, up some eight points from the last municipal elections in 1996, and observers say the opposition is gradually chipping away at the Concertacin's decade of dominance. They warn that the Concertacin must successfully address unemployment, up to 10.7 percent, the highest of President Ricardo Lagos's seventh-month-old term, or the Alliance could take Congress in December elections.

Despite Mr. Lagos's high approval rating, the jobless rate - not to mention a scandal over excessive severance payments to Concertacin stalwarts at state-owned companies and aggressive campaigning by Alliance hopefuls - has hurt the ruling body. In the weekend vote, the Alliance took control of 165 mayoral spots, up from 132 in 1996, while the Concertacin lost its grip on 35 municipalities.

"It wasn't a complete triumph, because to be a total triumph, you'd have to get over 50 percent of the vote," says Tomas Duval, an analyst at the Liberty Institute, a right-wing think tank. "But it's a very important advance."

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"I think the results indicate a victory for the Concertacin and a victory for the Alliance," adds Francisco Rojas, director of the left-leaning Latin American Social Sciences Faculty think tank. He is referring to Concertacin's ability to maintain over half the vote and the right's eight-point advance over 1996.

"But, in the government, they're not happy. In the Alliance, they are," he adds.

The Chile vote highlights the falling influence of former dictator Augusto Pinochet in political matters, Holzmann says. The Concertacin, which helped bring about the end of Pinochet's regime, was founded in the late 1980s based on its opposition to the military strongman. But Alliance rising star Joaquin Lavin, who lost narrowly to Lagos in January's presidential vote but won resoundingly in the Santiago mayor's race, has successfully diverted the political agenda away from the military regime, attracting more centrist voters who otherwise would have stuck with the Concertacin.

"The Alliance has gained because it talks about the future, while the Concertacin still just talks about the past and present," said Holzmann.

Still, Concertacin officials say their coalition is hardly a political dinosaur.

"The Alliance is a stronger competitor than it was in the past," acknowledges Carlos Mladinic, a Concertacin stalwart and the government spokesman under former President Eduardo Frei.

"But it would be a mistake to say the Alliance has the next elections won."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society