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

    Native Americans Ask: What About Our Water Supply?

    They say they have been facing a dangerous water contaminant for decades - uranium – but the problem has received far less attention than water contamination by lead in Flint, Michigan

    Pakistan's President Urges Nation Not to Celebrate Valentine's Day

    Mamnoon Hussain criticizes Valentine's Day, which falls on Sunday this year, as a Western import that threatens to undermine the Islamic values of Pakistan

    Mother of IS Supporter: Son Was Peaceful, 'Role Model'

    Somali-American Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of conspiring to provide material support to Islamic State militants

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortagei
    X
    February 12, 2016 7:31 PM
    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortage

    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Gateway to Mecca: Historical Old Jeddah

    Local leader Sami Nawar's family has been in the Old City of Jeddah for hundreds of years and takes us on a tour of this ancient route to Mecca, also believed to be the final resting place of Adam's wife, Eve.
    Video

    Video New Technology Aims to Bring Election Transparency to Uganda

    A team of recent graduates from Uganda’s Makerere University has created a mobile application designed to help monitor elections and expose possible rigging. The developers say the app, called E-Poll, will make Uganda's democratic process fairer. From Kampala, VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video Russia Bristles at NATO Expansion in E. Europe

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is meeting Friday with the head of NATO after the Western military alliance and the United States announced plans for the biggest military build-up in Europe since the Cold War. Russia has called NATO's moves a threat to stability in Europe. But NATO says the troop rotations and equipment are aimed at reassuring allies concerned about Russia as VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.

    More Americas News

    Mexico Accuses Prison Officials of Homicide after Brutal Riot

    Warden, two others detained following one of deadliest prison riots in Mexico's history last week; ‘Who is directly responsible? ... The director of the penitentiary,’ state prosecutor says

    Pope Tells Mexican Leaders to Provide 'True Justice'

    Pontiff warns nation's president, lawmakers against permitting privilege for an elite class at the expense of the rest of society

    More than 5,000 Pregnant Colombian Women Infected With Zika Virus

    Total number of people diagnosed in Colombia has reached 31,555, the National Health Institute says in its Epidemiology Bulletin, among them 5,013 pregnant women

    Pope-Patriarch Meeting Seen by Russians as Significant

    Meeting in Havana on Friday between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill was the first between the two church's leaders

    The Internet Comes to Cuba ... Slowly

    Smartphones prevalent, but only to make or receive calls, as mobile Internet access severely limited to certain areas; restriction has its charms, some say

    Daily Flights Between US, Cuba Planned for Later this Year

    Agreement to be signed Tuesday in Havana allowing up to 110 flights a day; US law prohibiting travel to Cuba for tourist activities remains in effect