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.
TEXT SIZE - +
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

Photogallery Pope's Easter Prayer: Peace in Ukraine, Syria

Pontiff also calls for end to terrorist acts in Nigeria, violence in Iraq, and success in peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians More

Abdullah Holds Lead in Afghan Presidential Election

Country's Election Commission says that with half of the ballots counted, former FM remains in the lead with 44 percent of the vote More

Russia-Ukraine Crisis Could Trigger Cyber War

As tensions between Kyiv and Moscow escalate, so too has frequency of online attacks targeting government, news and financial sites More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politicsi
X
Michael Eckels
April 19, 2014
There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politics

There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Face of American Farmer is Changing

The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Donetsk Governor: Ukraine Military Assault 'Delicate But Necessary'

Around a dozen state buildings in eastern Ukraine remain in the hands of pro-Russian protesters who are demanding a referendum on self-rule. The governor of the whole Donetsk region is among those forced out by the protesters. He spoke to VOA's Henry Ridgwell from his temporary new office in Donetsk city.
Video

Video Drones May Soon Send Data From High Seas

Drones are usually associated with unmanned flying vehicles, but autonomous watercraft are also becoming useful tools for jobs ranging from scientific exploration to law enforcement to searching for a missing airliner in the Indian Ocean. VOA’s George Putic reports on sea-faring drones.
Video

Video New Earth-Size Planet Found

Not too big, not too small. Not too hot, not too cold. A newly discovered planet looks just right for life as we know it, according to an international group of astronomers. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Copts in Diaspora Worry About Future in Egypt

Around 10 percent of Egypt’s population belong to the Coptic faith, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they have become targets of violence since the revolution three years ago. With elections scheduled for May and the struggle between the Egyptian military and Islamists continuing, many Copts abroad are deeply worried about the future of their ancient church. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky visited a Coptic church outside Washington DC.
Video

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

During the two months of deadly anti-government protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation of Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition of trying to initiate a coup. Though a small number of military officers have been arrested for allegedly plotting against the government, VOA’s Brian Padden reports the leadership of the armed forces continues to support the president, at least for now.
Video

Video More Millenials Unplug to Embrace Board Games

A big new trend in the U.S. toy industry has more consumers switching off their high-tech gadgets to play with classic toys, like board games. This is especially true among the so-called millenial generation - those born in the 1980's and 90's. Elizabeth Lee has more from an unusual café in Los Angeles, where the new trend is popular and business is booming.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
AppleAndroid

More Americas News

Venezuelan Protesters Burn Leaders in Effigy

Hundreds take to streets of Caracas Easter Sunday demanding ‘resurrection of democracy; President Maduro’s image among those burnt
More

Photogallery Pope's Easter Prayer: Peace in Ukraine, Syria

Pontiff also calls for end to terrorist acts in Nigeria, violence in Iraq, and success in peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians
More

Audit Finds US Housing Aid Program in Haiti Falls Short

Results show post-earthquake USAID program has delivered only a quarter of planned number of homes at nearly twice the budgeted cost
More

Mourning, Memories in Garcia Marquez's Languid Hometown

Nobel Prize-winning author's early years in Aracataca inspired characters, tales for major novel
More

Powerful Earthquake Rattles Mexico

US Geological Survey says quake measuring 7.5 on Richter scale, was centered in the western state of Guerrero, north of Acapulco beach resort
More

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support
More