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SANTIAGO, Chile — It’s unheard of: Gay men holding hands and lesbians kissing each other on prime-time television, brought to you by conservative and Catholic presidential candidates.

Welcome to “Who gets the gay vote?” in the Chilean elections. If the generally accepted belief that 10 percent of the overall population is gay is true, winning those voters over is a matter of political life or death.

The Dec. 13 general elections will not decide who will be the next president of Chile, but they will determine who goes on to the second round in January. As it stands now, only one thing is clear: right-wing billionaire Sebastian Pinera will be on the ballot both times.

His final opponent will be either Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei, of the governing Concertacion coalition, or Marco Enriquez-Ominami, who pulled out of that coalition earlier this year to run as independent.

Now they are all scrambling to appeal to voters, and gay rights have become a central feature of their campaigning. But the gay community is still wondering whether this is all for show or whether it portends real advances in a country where sodomy among adults was penalized with jail time until just 10 years ago.

Pinera wasn’t the first candidate — in fact, he was the last — to support the idea of legalizing the rights of gay couples to inheritance, patrimony and health and social security benefits. But he made the news because of where he comes from: a conservative coalition with leaders linked to the Opus Dei that has consistently opposed women’s sexual and reproductive rights, divorce and sex education in schools. Gay rights weren’t even part of its vocabulary.

Then a couple of weeks ago, Pinera’s television spots began showing a gay couple holding hands, with the candidate speaking on their behalf: “Today, people accept us,” he says. “Now we need a country that respects us.”

Chilean electoral laws provide free daily five-minute television spots for each presidential candidate during the 30 days prior to the elections.

Frei included in one of his a lesbian couple kissing, after which one of the women says: “We deserve the same rights as everyone.” Days later, he began including a transvestite sweeping the hairdresser’s where he worked, saying: “Integration and more understanding.”

Enriquez-Ominami and leftist candidate Jorge Arrate haven’t gone out of their way to publicly support gay rights because it has always been part of their agendas. As a congressman, Enriquez-Ominami sponsored a bill on gay marriages last year.

The Movement for Homosexual Integration and Liberation (MOVILH) called the TV spots a milestone in the history of presidential elections in Chile.

“This has been positive, in that candidates are putting the historical demands of the homosexual movement on the agenda. But this didn’t come out of nowhere: it is a result of many years of our work, lobbying politicians and raising public awareness about our rights,” said Rolando Jimenez, president of MOVIHL.

Yet not everyone supports this new inclusive spirit.

For an outraged Catholic Church, the ads were just going too far.

“In the interest that candidates have to attract voters they present many different realities, but there are limits to this,” warned the president of the Bishops Conference, Monsignor Alejandro Goic.

And the two-party alliance that Pinera represents is deeply divided on whether the issue should be part of the campaign. Some of its more conservative leaders are outright angry that they weren’t consulted before the television spot ran.

In any case, many have little faith in the authenticity of the candidates’ sudden compassion for gays and their rights. The gay community is expecting concrete results, and so far, there has been very little to show.

One bill under consideration would extend benefits currently granted to married couples to both same-sex and opposite-sex couples who live together. It is still being discussed in congressional commissions, and has been delayed by the objections of right-wing representatives of Pinera’s political coalition.

Another bill that would establish measures against discrimination was introduced in 2006 but has been stuck in the Senate because the Pinera-allied UDI party has refused to accept that sexual minorities also benefit from the law.

And the candidates' actual platforms don't go much further either.

Pinera’s government program only makes a vague reference to “strengthening and extending people’s rights … including dimensions not institutionally covered to date, ensuring a more pluralist and integrated society.”

Enriquez-Ominami, who sponsored a bill on gay marriages in 2008, didn’t include such a proposal in his government platform, only expressing support for civil unions.

MOVIHL has fared better with Frei, starting with a meeting last June in which the candidate for the first time referred to the civil unions of homosexuals as a “human rights” issue and not just a “moral” one, as it is generally considered in Chile. However, what Frei has so far outlined as his government program doesn't even mention these rights.

“Next year Congress will have to vote on the non-discrimination and civil unions bills," Jimenez said. "The candidates and their parties will have two opportunities to prove they mean what they say."

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