What’s Behind Bachelet’s Comeback and Can She Follow Through on Her Promises?

When she first came into office, Chile’s former (and likely future) president Michelle Bachelet got off to a rough start, but managed to leave office with sky-high approval ratings around 70%. By contrast, the country’s current president, the conservative Sebastian Pinera, has been deeply unpopular throughout his presidency – in fact he’s probably the least popular president since the country was restored to democracy in 1990. Even at the zenith of his popularity, voters still strongly preferred Bachelet as Pinera’s successor over any other candidate in the field.

As Chileans head to the polls today to vote in the runoff election between Bachelet and Pinera’s preferred successor, Evelyn Matthei, it’s basically taken for granted that Bachelet will easily defeat her former childhood playmate and current rival. As the Santiago Times put it, “Matthei is against free education, large alterations to the tax code and new a constitution — major campaign issues this election season all backed by Bachelet.” Also, Matthei has been dogged by charges of populism that have similarly been lobbed against Pinera.

However, Bachelet’s relatively easy path to (presumed) victory doesn’t stem from her former popularity alone, nor is it a simple “vote-the-bums-out” reaction to Pinera’s unpopularity. Chile has enjoyed strong economic growth under Pinera, fueled in large part by a boom in copper mining and exports, which has contributed to the country attaining the highest per capita income in the region at more than $20,000 and has helped reduce poverty and unemployment.

At the same time, Chile’s economic inequality remains the worst among OECD countries, and distrust of government and politicians runs deep among the country’s citizens. Low youth turnout is expected in today’s elections, which could hurt Bachelet’s chances for the kind of landslide victory that would give her the political capital necessary to carry out the reforms she has promised during the campaign. According to a study by ASIA Marketing cited in the Santiago Times, 33% of young voters “do not believe in politics, the politicians [and/or] the parties,” 21% said they lacked interest in politics and 28% said they do not feel represented by their elected officials.

This antiestablishment sentiment is evidenced by massive, ongoing protests that have shaken the country for years and that helped send a raft of radical young student activists to Congress in recent elections. Begun by students dissatisfied with the educational system, particularly the expansion of private education, the movement has grown to encompass citizens with other grievances, such as persistent inequality and an outdated constitution that is a relic of the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, as well as environmental and labor issues.

The memory of Pinochet’s despotic rule remains strong. This year marked the fortieth anniversary of Chile’s own “9/11” – September 11, 1973, when a coup engineered and supported by the United States brought the brutal leader to power. Chileans have one of the highest preferences for democracy in the region and the lowest tolerance for authoritarianism, but Matthei’s father was a supporter of the coup government, which tortured Bachelet’s father to death and destroyed the former girlfriends’ once close relationship – a fact that certainly doesn’t help Matthei at the polls.

Bachelet’s image as a woman of the people differs strongly from Pinera’s executive persona. As one pollster said of Bachelet near the end of her first term, “She lowered the presidency closer to the people.” By contrast Pinera stocked his cabinet with businessmen and economists and governed as a technocrat, concentrating on growing the economy rather than reducing inequality and satisfying the demands of the disaffected citizens taking to the streets.

In a head to head debate with Matthei, Bachelet acknowledged that transportation reforms and her administration’s poor handling of the 2010 earthquake and tsunami disaster represented black marks on her first term in office. However, Patricio Navia, a political science professor at Universidad Diego Portales, told the Santiago Times that “voters have shown little interest in punishing Bachelet for…it.” Bachelet’s vague references to reforming the tax code in order to pay for educational reforms to make the system more accessible have been treated with some skepticism from demonstrators, but Matthei has not offered an alternative to Pinera’s policies, claiming that “growth is the best tax reform.”

Chilean writer Arturo Fontaine put it well in a recent New York Times op-ed:

If she wins on Sunday, Ms. Bachelet’s biggest problem will be high and divergent expectations. She ended her first term on a wave of popularity, having weathered the worst effects of the global financial crisis while providing additional support for Chile’s poor. But her coalition is deeply divided over education, tax policy and constitutional reform, and she risks alienating the middle class if she moves too far to the left.

Chilean voters are obviously ready to head in a different direction and it seems apparent that they want Bachelet to lead them, but it won’t be easy. Kenneth Bunker, political scientist at the Universidad Diego Portales told the Santiago Times that the current electoral system could be an obstacle: “It will be very hard. The binominal system subsidizes the minority party or coalition…It is likely that Bachelet will have a simple majority — enough to conduct tax reform — but it is unlikely she will have the two-thirds majority needed to conduct constitutional reform.”

Update (12/15/13):

According to the AP, Bachelet has won the election:

With 90 percent of the votes counted, Bachelet had an unbeatable 62 percent to 38 percent for the center-right’s Evelyn Matthei, who conceded defeat.


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