SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Alejandro Guillier, the Chilean center-left’s best hope to succeed President Michelle Bachelet next year, said investors could be assured he would stick to the “rules of the game” if elected, but that Chileans were demanding real change.
Should he be elected, his priorities would be finding ways to diversify Chile’s economy away from the dominant copper industry, adding value to the country’s commodities exports, and giving communities outside capital Santiago a stronger say, Guillier told Reuters as part of the Latin American Investment Summit.
Guillier is polling around 20 percent of voting intentions ahead of November’s general election, trailing conservative candidate Sebastian Pinera, who is close to 40 percent, and at around the same level of support as harder left candidate Beatriz Sanchez, according to an aggregator poll by electoral forecasters Tresquintos.
However, if no candidate secures at least 50 percent of votes in the first round, the top two go to a run-off in December. That is likely to be a close contest.
An ex-journalist who entered politics after being elected to the senate in 2013, Guillier is unaffiliated with any major party but has the backing of most of Bachelet’s center-left coalition.
However, he needs to differentiate himself to win over Chileans. Bachelet’s government has low popularity ratings after a series of missteps, including a reform drive that received a lukewarm response in an increasingly polarized country - criticized by the right for going too far, and by the left for not doing enough.
“What happened in Europe is happening in Chile. People are fed up with traditional political parties and a more citizen-based politics is coming,” said Guillier, in an interview in Santiago’s ex-Congress building.
“What we need now is not so much structural reforms, but that the reforms reach regular people and that they feel them in their daily lives.”
Compared to Bachelet, 64-year-old Guillier said he would pursue a more decentralized approach, empowering local councils and communities.
And while market favorite Pinera has emphasized policies focused on improving sluggish economic growth, Guillier said growth must also come with jobs and welfare provisions.
“We are not going to throw people out onto the street to tweak the economy,” he said.
Policies such as moving forward with a new “mega-port,” a “more aggressive” support of renewable energy, and investing in Chile’s fast-growing tourism could help the country eventually get back to gross domestic product growth of 4 percent, he said.
The economy of the top copper exporter is forecast to grow around 1.5 percent this year, held back by weak business confidence and investment, although a gradually rising copper price is expected to improve its longer-term outlook.
Guillier wants to encourage investment by cutting in half the time needed for mining and energy projects to receive environmental approval, and not bringing in new royalties or taxes. In return, he said he expected companies to re-invest more of their profits in local communities.
“We are going to respect the rules of the game, we always have respected them, we are a country that accepts foreign investment,” said Guillier.
He singled out an initiative by development agency Corfo to provide cheaper lithium to foreign companies prepared to invest in next-generation lithium technology within Chile as something he was watching “with a lot of enthusiasm.”
That model could be applied to other parts of Chile’s mining and energy industry to increase the value of products Chile makes and provide higher quality training and jobs, he said.
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Reporting by Rosalba O'Brien and Antonio de la Jara; Editing by Chris Reese