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Chile's president faces impeachment for what his critics call a conflict of interest

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Chile holds the first round of its presidential election this Sunday. But even though the current president, Sebastian Pinera, is not a candidate, he is overshadowing the campaign. Senators there will decide tomorrow whether to remove him from office for what his opponents say is a conflict of interest. We're joined by NPR's South America correspondent Philip Reeves from his base in Rio de Janeiro. Welcome back, Philip.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Thank you.

CORNISH: First, can you detail these allegations?

REEVES: Well, do you remember that giant stack of millions of leaked documents that was recently published by a consortium of international investigative journalists, the documents called the Pandora papers that detailed all sorts of offshore transactions by political leaders and business figures all over the world? In that pile, there were documents about the sale in 2010 in the British Virgin Islands of a Chilean mining firm that's linked to Pinera's family.

Pinera was, at the time of the sale, serving his first term as president. And his opponents alleged that his government favored the deal and that this basically amounts to corruption. Pinera and his officials say that's nonsense. They say the issue was investigated by prosecutors in 2017 and that he was cleared of any wrongdoing and that this is only now being raised by the left as a way of beating their drum ahead of Sunday's elections.

CORNISH: But how did they get to this particular point, I mean, in terms of this drama around the vote?

REEVES: Well, the impeachment proceedings were set in motion just under a week ago by the lower house of Chile's Congress in dramatic fashion. To go forward with this, Pinera's opponents needed 78 votes. And they just made it but only after one leftist lawmaker spoke for 15 hours so as to allow enough time for a colleague to come out of mandatory COVID quarantine so that he could come along and vote. The lawmaker filled up the 15 hours by reading out a huge document of some 1,300 pages that outlined the allegations against Sebastian Pinera.

CORNISH: What are the chances that Pinera will actually be removed from office?

REEVES: Well, the bar in the Senate is much higher. Two-thirds of senators must vote in favor of impeachment for it to go ahead. The House has 43 members, and multiple reports from Chile say that the opposition is five votes short of victory. So it's unlikely to pass.

CORNISH: So if he's unlikely to be removed from office, why is this having such an effect on the election?

REEVES: Well, because the election's on Sunday, and this is really raising the political temperature during an already volatile time. Those elections on Sunday are to choose, remember, a successor to Pinera, who steps down in March and isn't running again. It's the first round. And tensions are already high, not least because of the unexpected emergence as possible frontrunner of a populist from the far right, Jose Antonio Kast. He's up against a former student activist, Gabriel Boric.

But the left is worried now because - remember those Chileans who led the mass protests in Chile two years ago? They were huge. They were calling for far more social equality. Now, Kast is a politician from a completely different part of the spectrum. He's close to Jair Bolsonaro, for example, Brazil's far-right president.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Philip Reeves from Rio de Janeiro. Thanks so much for explaining this.

REEVES: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARKUS GUNTNER'S "[UNTITLED TRACK]") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.