Billionaire Sebastian Pinera will return to power as Chile’s president next year, according to virtually complete results from a runoff election held Sunday.
Electoral authorities said the 68-year-old conservative, who previously led the South American nation from 2010-2014, had 55 percent of the vote, with 98 percent of ballots counted.
His leftist rival Alejandro Guillier, a 64-year-old TV presenter turned senator who ran as an independent backed by outgoing center-left President Michelle Bachelet, conceded after receiving 45 percent.
“We have suffered a tough defeat,” Guillier said. He called for the opposition to “defend” reforms started under Bachelet.
He said Pinera walked away with “a solid and impeccable triumph.”
Pinera will lead the country — the world’s top copper producer — for four years starting in March 2018.
He will once again take over from Bachelet, who was barred by the constitution from running for re-election.
Bachelet and Pinera have tag-teamed the presidency since Bachelet first took office in 2006. Since then, they have alternated in power, switching Chile’s politics between center-left and center-right each time.
The outcome of the runoff had been far from certain after Pinera scored a much lower than expected 37 percent in the first round of the election held November 19.
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 the end, most voters appeared to come down in favor of the experience of Pinera, who is worth about $2.7 billion and painted himself as a safe pair of hands for Latin America’s fifth-biggest economy.
Voting had taken place under a somber 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 runoff.
Both candidates had projected confidence, with Pinera 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 runoff, 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.
Strengthening Israel tie, recognizing Palestinian statehood
Under Pinera’s leadership during his previous stint as president, Chile took several steps to increase ties with Israel while also adopting a number of pro-Palestinian positions.
In 2011 Pinera visited Israel in the first such visit of a Chilean premier in order to sign a free trade agreement with the Jewish state.
Months later however, angering Israeli officials, Pinera led the Chilean government in adopting a resolution “recognizing the existence of the State of Palestine as a free, independent and sovereign state.”
Speaking after the resolution was passed, Pinera said that ties with Israel and recognition of Palestine did not contradict each other.
“In this way we contribute to that end that may exist in the Middle East, a Palestinian state and a state of Israel that can live in peace and prosperity and recognized frontiers with secure borders,” he said.
Chile is home to some 15,000 Jews and what is thought to be the world’s largest Palestinian community outside the Arab world, with more than 300,000 members.