Pablo Longueira, who could pose a serious threat to leftwing candidate Michelle Bachelet, is trying to carve out a niche for himself as a democratic insurgent
Juan Pablo Longueira is no ordinary politician. When the socialist former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet emerges on the streets of Santiago clutching coconuts and praising the virtues of socialism, Mr Longueira stands beside her brandishing a shotgun. When drug gangs terrorise the city’s streets, he strides through them. And when much of Chile is beset by sky-high levels of crime, he was arrested last year on charges of sexual assault.
Mr Longueira is the far-right presidential candidate from Chile’s centre and leftwing politics who is hoping to exploit a deep-seated sense of discontent among the electorate. And with Bachelet, candidate of Chile’s single-party, centre-left coalition called the Frente Amplio, struggling to gain traction and gaining flak for the slow pace of her judicial reforms, Mr Longueira could be on the verge of proving himself a serious contender.
I come from a Democratic family and belong to a new generation of the Liberal party. We want to make our opinion clear before the voters. Pablo Longueira
“We are the democratic insurgents,” he told the Guardian. “We are representing Chile’s political and social change.”
Mr Longueira, 46, burst on to Chile’s political scene when he set up a centrist political party in 2012 that, in the eyes of some Chileans, was a breath of fresh air after the Left for Change congress adopted the single-party system in 2010. His Longueira bloc includes Catholic, business, indigenous and liberal leaders who have clashed in the past over race and culture.
But there has been little overlap between Mr Longueira’s label – the centrist Ríodoce party – and the rancourous competition for the party’s remaining political seats, most notably in the congressional elections in February.
Instead, Mr Longueira has attracted broader support through a grassroots campaign of house parties, sponsored by hundreds of donors, and a virulent anti-corruption platform that, observers say, has helped him outflank the left in recent months.
Pablo Longueira: a threat to Michelle Bachelet. Photograph: Rodrigo Viga Gaier/Reuters
“He has a unique role in Chilean politics. He is an iconoclast who can connect to the popular imagination and is unafraid to speak his mind,” says Andrea Vasquez, professor of political science at the American University of Chile.
Under current rules, any coalition party can nominate a candidate as a candidate in the first round of the presidential election, which is due to take place next month. Without the right to nominate its own candidate, Mr Longueira has the chance to act as a spoiler for Ms Bachelet, who is expected to fare poorly in the first round.
A good-looking former advertising executive, Mr Longueira left Chile when he was 19 to study and work in New York. He returned to Chile and moved to the central city of Temuco, where his party successfully unseated a powerful mayor in 2012. Although Ms Bachelet has recently restored order to much of Chile, several serious crimes have swept through the capital over the past month, reigniting concerns over the deteriorating security situation.
“I come from a Democratic family and belong to a new generation of the Liberal party,” Mr Longueira said, likening himself to French philosopher and writer Michel Foucault. “We want to make our opinion clear before the voters. And if the voters don’t like it, they can vote for the other candidate.”
Mr Longueira acknowledges that he has to convince voters to back him instead of the current president, Sebastian Pinera, who is likely to win the first round on 27 April.
“But we have our own message,” he said. “People of Chile have an opportunity to give us the chance to do politics, to give a different way forward.”