Chile's President Sebastián Piñera suffered a devastating blow at the ballot box Sunday when more than five million people rejected conservative mayors and councilors and cast ballots for independents and center-left contenders in the first non-mandatory-voting election held since democracy was restored in 1990.
Piñera's coalition lost important mayoral seats, including the capital Santiago, which was captured by Carolina Tohá, of the Party for Democracy (PPD), a political partner of former President Michelle Bachelet's leftist Concertación grouping. Other important boroughs across Santiago also switched from pro-government mayors to independent and communist candidates.
It was the first time Chileans were not obligated to go to the polls since the mandatory voting system was changed a year ago by Piñera. Voter abstention was estimated at around 60 percent. Of the country's 13.4 million names on the election rolls, only 5.5 million people showed up.
Piñera said that the low turnout was a "warning sign" for democracy. "In this election, many Chileans exercised their right not to vote," he said on Sunday. "However, this is a warning sign that mustn't go unnoticed."
The rejection of candidates from Piñera's ruling coalition could be a preview of voter tendencies in next year's presidential and congressional races, analysts said.
Piñera, the first conservative president to come to office since democracy was restored in 1990, has seen his popularity plummet in recent years. His administration has been plagued with scores of violent student protests over the government's education reforms, which many student leaders say give more of an advantage to private schools over public institutions.
In Providencia, a fashionable and wealthy borough of Santiago, the independent candidate Josefa Errázuriz defeated the controversial Cristián Labbé, who had been mayor for 16 years. Labbé, who was a government minister in Augusto Pinochet's government and the general's spokesman, still defended the dictatorship in public.
Nationwide, the number of mayors from Piñera's center-right alliance dropped from 144 to 121, while the opposition captured 21 more mayoral seats, pushing their representation to 168 towns and cities.
One of the biggest wins Sunday night for the center-left was that of Carolina Trohá in Santiago. She is the daughter of José Trohá, a former vice president to Salvador Allende who died in 1974 under mysterious circumstances at a hospital where he had been taken after being tortured by the military.
Allende's granddaughter, Maya Fernández Allende, won the mayoral race in the Santiago borough of Ñuñoa.
Letelier's murderer wanted in Spain
Spain's High Court has issued an international arrest warrant for Michael Vernon Townley, the former CIA agent who served more than five years in a US prison for assassinating former Chilean Ambassador Orlando Letelier, on charges that he helped to kidnap and torture a Spanish diplomat in 1976.
Besides Townley, a US citizen who is in a federal witness protection program, Judge Pablo Ruz issued warrants for six former agents of Chile's DINA secret police who allegedly took part in the murder of Carmelo Soria Espinoza.
Soria Espinoza served as a UN representative on the Latin American Economic Commission (CEPAL) and was stationed in Santiago.
According to the charges, the seven defendants kidnapped and tortured Soria Espinoza because they wanted to know his contacts with the then outlawed Chilean Communist Party. They broke his ribs and forced him to drink pisco (a strong liqueur made from grapes), and injected him with poison. He was eventually strangled and his body was thrown into a canal.
Townley was convicted for the 1976 car-bombing assassinations of Letelier and his US aide Ronnie Moffitt in Washington's Sheridan Circle. A controversial figure, Townley has confessed to helping the DINA carry out other assassinations following the 1973 overthrow of Marxist President Salvador Allende.
In 1983, he was released from a federal prison and placed in a witness protection program after he agreed to cooperate with US authorities.