For many in Chile, the earthquake is secondary to race to replace outgoing president

SANTIAGO, Chile – The topic on so many minds among Chileans as they woke up Monday was not the news of a devastating earthquake off the country’s southern coast, which left at least 10 dead, but the nomination of a hard-right presidential candidate who stokes fears of migration from the Andes.

Juan Martin Ospina, a rancher and father of five from the lush valley region around Coquimbo, was nominated Sunday to compete against a left-wing candidate who had front-runners that would have been impossible to beat even in a two-horse race.

Mr. Ospina, 52, is a ubiquitous presence on local television and radio shows, his loud, exaggerated chuckle a fixture in morning broadcasts. But even though his initials, J.O., stand for “One For All,” he is no reformer.

He rails against problems he sees as stemming from Chile’s 2002 transition to democracy: cancer, deficits, crime, unemployment, poor education and health care. He is strongly in favor of mining, a boom industry that has drawn migrant laborers from Peru, Bolivia and even Brazil.

“The conditions of the income distribution, of the income gap, are very, very serious, and in this world, you don’t learn democracy the traditional way: by ballot,” Mr. Ospina said, in a televised interview. “You learn it by scuffling, by boycotting, by demonstrating, by repression, by killing.”

He is calling for an end to a program that provided healthcare and education for all children, arguing that the cost is too high. He favors mining in Chaiten, a town near Coquimbo that largely is popular with migrant workers who have flocked to the area and raised the town’s income sharply. He advocates maintaining a “tribal economy” that envisions sustaining and stimulating indigenous groups through mutually beneficial agreements and investments.

The draw for voters from the left is a policy that would put the end of mining, principally through a tax hike, in the hands of the individual province, so that local farmers would not pay the higher costs.

Mr. Ospina won a lower-house seat in December by only 88 votes out of a total of 308,684 cast. That was the single worst defeat in the history of this country, where one in five votes has gone to someone other than the president.

At times Mr. Ospina seems perfectly comfortable in the role of political outsider, railing against the economic and environmental consequences of a mining boom that has already sent prices soaring. He presented himself as a democrat during the presidential race, after all, but he has been a thorn in the side of opponents, fomenting an increasingly belligerent tone against Chile’s pro-business, pro-mining elite.

The fact that he has been elected has led to the growth of an informal party called the Union for Weighed Up People, which includes the parliamentarian from his camp as well as socialists and liberals. Mr. Ospina is one of three candidates in the race. The official winner will be determined by June 17.

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