News / Americas

Chile's Bachelet Set to Return to Power; Obstacles Await

Former president Michelle Bachelet responds to a question during a presidential debate in Santiago, Chile, Oct. 25, 2013.
Former president Michelle Bachelet responds to a question during a presidential debate in Santiago, Chile, Oct. 25, 2013.
Reuters
Michelle Bachelet is a safe bet to return to power in Chile's presidential election, but she is now promoting a more ambitious program of leftist reforms and will need every ounce of her political skill to push them through.
 
A physician by training and a moderate socialist by conviction, Bachelet has unfinished business from her first term in 2006-2010.
 
She wants to raise corporate taxes to pay for an education overhaul and rip up Chile's dictatorship-era constitution as well as the electoral system.
 
Bachelet, the only woman ever to lead Chile, has between 30-40 percent support in polls, well ahead of her nearest opponent, Evelyn Matthei of the rightist Alianza coalition.
 
Matthei is polling between 12-23 percent, hampered by links with the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, who took power in a 1973 military coup and led Chile for 17 years.
 
Memories of the coup and the violent repression that followed still resound 40 years later. The presence of Matthei's father in Pinochet's junta, as well as her own support for Pinochet in a 1988 plebiscite on his continued rule, have tainted her in the minds of many Chileans.
 
Seven other candidates jostling in the first round on November 17 will likely push the election to a run-off in December, and Bachelet should comfortably win, polls suggest.
 
She could then be hampered, however, by an electoral system that gives heavy weighting to the second-placed party, so she needs to win big, or face four years of tough bargaining with the right.
 
While the other candidates scrap for second place, Bachelet has toured the South American country with a simple message: don't just vote for me, vote for my coalition.
 
“I ask you to mobilize, to get people to vote for the coalition, to vote for Congress because I need a Congress that will take the plunge on the changes that Chile needs,” she said last week in Rancagua, a town in central Chile that could be a symbol for the export-led economy, bumping up as it does against a large copper mine and vineyards.
 
Bachelet's pledges to address social inequalities by increasing corporate taxes, closing tax loopholes, spending more on healthcare and reforming an education system that favors those who can pay and has been the focus of sometimes violent student protests.
 
She also wants to help design a new constitution that she says would be “born of democracy.” It would be drawn up after debate but Bachelet wants to reduce the high number of votes needed to pass laws, introduce a new electoral system that is more representative of voting patterns, and lure more women into politics.
 
Bachelet's supporters say she is in a stronger position now than in her first term. Some in the Alianza bloc's more moderate Renovacion Nacional arm feel the voting system has put them at a disadvantage, so they may be ready to support electoral reform.
 
And Bachelet herself has matured as a leader.
 
“She feels much more secure in what she's doing,” said Sergio Bitar, who helped run her 2005 election campaign and served as one of her ministers.
 
“Now you see somebody who's a leader, who knows where she's heading, who's responding to what people are asking, telling people where to go, listening to everyone - a much stronger personality nationally and internationally.”
 
Still, to change the constitution under the current system would require the backing of two-thirds of Congress.
 
Although the entire lower house and 20 of the 38 seats in the Senate are also up for grabs in November, Bachelet's coalition would need a substantial swing to win a two-thirds majority and that is seen as unlikely.
 
Even with a convincing win in the presidential vote, Bachelet would have to keep in check her own Nueva Mayoria coalition, which ranges from moderate leftists to communists who were brought in for the first time in the hope that their links with protesters and community groups will help keep the peace.
 
“I think it's going to be very difficult,” said political scientist and columnist Robert Funk. “She's going to have a great challenge to manage a coalition which is increasingly unmanageable, the economy is going to be in rough shape, the social movements are not going to go away.”
 
Investors are also keen for assurances that the business-friendly model of recent years, including in Bachelet's first term, will not be abandoned, especially as investment in the crucial mining industry is slowing and dragging economic growth down with it.
 
The central bank forecasts the economy will grow by between 4 and 4.5 percent in 2013, compared to 5.6 percent last year.
 
Empathy
 
A poll by the Universidad Diego Portales last week showed that some 80 percent of Chileans said they do not identify with any political party, the lowest since the survey began in 2005.
 
They do identify with the 62-year-old Bachelet, however.
 
“She has a marked social empathy. She is tuned into people, that is something that other politicians don't have,” said political analyst Guillermo Holzmann.
 
Bachelet's father was an air force general who remained loyal to socialist President Salvador Allende after he was elected in 1970. When Allende was toppled from power in Pinochet's coup, her father was imprisoned and tortured.
 
He died in prison. Michelle Bachelet and her mother were also tortured and later forced into exile.
 
Divorced, with two children from her marriage and a third from a later relationship, Bachelet is an avowed feminist who in her first term appointed a cabinet made up exactly equally of women and men. Her background is a strong selling point for her.
 
“They don't just see her, they don't just see her government, they know her story,” said Funk. “If you compare her popularity to that of her government, hers was always much, much greater.”
 
Just before Bachelet left office in January 2010, she had an 83 percent approval rating, according to pollsters Adimark, despite early mistakes that included the messy implementation of a new transport network in Santiago.
 
Barred constitutionally from ruling for two consecutive terms, Bachelet could not contest the 2009 election and her coalition lost to Alianza and its candidate, Sebastian Pinera.
 
In the last weeks of her administration, Bachelet came under criticism for her handling of a devastating earthquake and tsunami that killed 551 people.
 
It tarnished her legacy, but didn't heavily impact her long-term popularity. She has been the runaway favorite to win this election since before she even declared that she would run.
 
Pinera, a billionaire whose stand-offish manner contrasts with Bachelet's common touch, has been an unpopular president and faced a surge in popular discontent with many of the poor feeling they have not benefited from Chile's copper riches.
 
Ambitious reforms
 
If elected, Bachelet will join Brazil's Dilma Rousseff and Argentina's Cristina Fernandez to give a distinctly female face to political leadership in traditionally machista South America.
 
Like Fernandez and Rousseff, Bachelet was politicized in her youth under an oppressive military dictatorship.
 
While Fernandez has taken a populist, hard-left tack in power, both Rousseff and Bachelet follow more pragmatic, business-friendly policies.
 
Improved public education has become a major demand in both Brazil and Chile, with students regularly taking to the streets, and Bachelet is focusing heavily on education reform as a way of tackling inequality.
 
“I think today the conditions are right to do new things,” Bachelet told the local woman's magazine Cosas after her return to Chile from New York this year, where she headed the United Nations body dedicated to gender equality, U.N. Women.
 
“Chile needs structural reforms, and there is more political and social force to do it. It's not that I saw the light in New York. On much of this, I already had a clear conviction in the past. But today the conditions for progress are better.”
 
When she took office in 2006, Bachelet was seen as politically naive and she struggled to make decisions. She developed her political skills throughout her presidency and people in her circle say she is now much more savvy.
 
“I think she has internalized now that a country's problems, carrying out deep reforms or important changes that the people want, needs dialog with the leaders directly,” said Holzmann.
 
“She needs to talk to the opposition leaders and get a face-to-face dialog going, which will end up in the kind of political agreements that were the essential element she did not have clear in her first government.”
 
Perhaps mindful of where she will need future allies, Bachelet has largely refrained from joining the other candidates in mudslinging during the campaign.
 
She will need all her political talent to persuade politicians from left and right to back her, and analysts say she will probably have to water down some proposals.
 
It is not clear how far Alianza leaders will be willing to support her. They acknowledge that the education system needs to be shaken up but they want less wide-reaching reforms, paid for through growth rather than taxes.
 
They argue that Chile's successful economic model should not be tampered with and want action to secure the energy supply for its mining industry, a thorny topic on which Bachelet has said little.
 
Investors seem largely resigned to the fact that Bachelet will win and taxes will rise.

You May Like

Ukraine: Mysterious 'Roaming Tank' Reportedly Takes Aim at Smugglers

Ukraine's TV, print media, Facebook abuzz with reports a 'roaming tank' is on the loose, destroying vehicles of those involved in smuggling More

US Wildlife Service Begins Probe of Killing of Cecil the Lion

Minnesota man accused of killing beast is in hiding, has been asked to contact US officials; White House to review extradition petition More

Video Kerry Five-Nation Tour to Cover Security, Iran Nuclear Deal

Secretary of state will visit Egypt, Qatar, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam to discuss security issues, Iran nuclear deal, Trans-Pacific Partnership More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’i
X
July 29, 2015 9:34 PM
Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs

More Americas News

Venezuela Troops Occupy Polar Food Distribution Warehouses

Move follows months of accusations by President Nicolas Maduro that Polar, country's largest private employer, working to sabotage the economy
More

Brazil Nuclear Leader's Arrest May Stymie Atomic Ambitions

Othon Luiz Pinheiro da Silva arrested Tuesday for allegedly taking 4.5 million reais in bribes from engineering firms working on long-delayed Angra 3 power plant
More

Chileans Spooked by Crime, Demand Government Action

Hundreds took to streets of affluent Santiago neighborhoods Wednesday to protest what they say is explosion in crime in one of South America's safest nations
More

Bright Colors, Patterns Prevail at Colombiamoda Fashion Shows

Designers and brands show off a plethora of creations on catwalks in Medellin this week
More

Report: Rio's Filthy Waters Far From Ready for Olympics

An AP investigation found extremely high levels of viruses and bacteria from human sewage in Olympic and Paralympic venues for swimming and boating
More

Peru Forces Raid Coca Region Rebel Slave Camp

Special forces rescue 26 children, 13 women, some of whom had been held captive for three decades, when they raided jungle camp of Shining Path rebels
More