Chile: will Frei murder charges affect runoff?

Right-wing billionaire Sebastián Piñera led the presidential race in Chile’s general elections on Dec. 13 with about 44% of the vote, followed by the candidate of the ruling center-left Concertation coalition, the Christian Democratic former president Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle (1994-2000), with about 30%. The two candidates will face each other in a runoff on Jan. 17, with both seeking votes from supporters of former Socialist deputy Marco Enríquez Ominami, who came in third with 20%; he has refused to endorse either of the front-runners. Jorge Arrate of the Communist Party of Chile (PCCh), in fourth place with 5% of the vote, threw his support to Frei after the voting on Dec. 13. (Agence France Presse, Dec. 14)

Parties on the right won 16 of the 38 seats in the Senate and 58 of 120 seats in the Chamber of Deputies; this was the right’s strongest showing in the lower house since the end of the 1973-1990 military dictatorship headed by the late Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Concertation candidates won 19 seats in the Senate and 54 in the Chamber of Deputies. Three PCCh candidates won seats in the Chamber; they will be the first Communist legislators since the military coup of 1973. (DPA, Prensa Latina, Dec. 14)

On Dec. 7, less than a week before the elections, Appeals Court judge Alejandro Madrid charged three people with murder in the 1982 death of former president Eduardo Frei Montalva (1964-1970), the father of the Concertation candidate. The Frei family had long suspected that Frei Montalva, who had moved from supporting Pinochet to opposing the dictatorship, died from gradual poisoning rather than the natural causes cited in the official autopsy report. After a seven-year investigation, Judge Madrid concluded that low doses of mustard gas and thallium ultimately led to Frei Montalva’s death. The accused are a doctor with military connections, a former intelligence agent and Frei Montalva’s driver. Judge Madrid also accused three doctors of complicity in the murder or of helping in the coverup. If the judge’s conclusion is correct, this was the first murder of a president in Chile’s history.

“There is no doubt that Pinochet ordered this murder,” Álvaro Varela, a lawyer for the Frei family, told the New York Times. The dictatorship was suspected of killing several opponents using special poisons developed by the chemist Eugenio Berríos, who was murdered in Uruguay in the 1990s; his body was found there in 1995 (see Update #664).

Asked if the timing of the charges was connected to the elections and Frei Ruiz-Tagle’s poor showing in the polls, Justice Minister Carlos Maldonado said that instead of questioning the charges, people “should be ashamed that 27 years have had to pass so that truth and justice could start to be done in this case.” (NYT, Dec. 8;, Dec. 9 from AP)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Dec. 15

See our last post on Chile.