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

Multimedia Anti-Keystone XL Protests Continue

Demonstrators are worried about pipeline's effect on climate change, their traditional way of life, health and safety More

Thailand's Political Power Struggle Continues

Court gave Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra until May 2 to prepare her defense over abuse of power charges but uncertainty remains over election timing More

Malaysia Plane Search Tests Limits of Ocean Mapping Technology

Expert tells VOA existing equipment’s maximum operating depth is around 6 kilometers as operation continues on ocean bed for any trace of MH370 More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Messagei
X
Penelope Poulou
April 22, 2014 5:53 PM
Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Message

Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pro-Russian Separatists Plan 'Federalization Referendum' in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine say they plan to move forward next month with a referendum vote for greater autonomy, despite the Geneva agreement reached with Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine to end the political conflict. VOA's Brian Padden reports from the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video International Students Learn Film Production in World's Movie Capital

Hollywood - which is part of Los Angeles - is the movie capital of the world, and many aspiring filmmakers go there in hopes of breaking into the movie business. Mike O'Sullivan reports that regional universities are also a magnet for students who hope to become producers or directors.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid

More Americas News

Jailed American Aims to Leave Cuba 'Dead or Alive'

In Havana after visiting Alan Gross, attorney Scott Gilbert say his client has lost some vision in his right eye, walks with a limp due to hip problems, has lost a tooth and is 50 kilograms lighter than at the time of his arrest
More

Oldest Living Pro Ballplayer Dead at 102

Conrado Marrero's grandson confirmed the death, which came just two days before the centenarian's 103rd birthday
More

Summit to Protect Oceans Opens

Oceans called fundamental to life
More

Actress Lupita Nyong'o is People's 'Most Beautiful' Woman

Oscar winner, 31, lauded for role in '12 Years A Slave' says she 'never dreamed' she would be praised for her looks and land on cover of weekly magazine
More

Violent Protests Erupt Near Rio's Tourist Attractions

The rioting was sparked after word spread that the body of Douglas Rafael da Silva Pereira, a dancer on Brazil's Globo television network, had been discovered
More

Russia Expels Canadian Diplomat

Reports say first secretary's expulsion in Moscow is in retaliation for deportation of Russian military attache from Russian Embassy in Ottawa
More