With a resounding throttling of her opponent in last Sunday’s runoff election in Chile, Michelle Bachelet confirmed what most observers pretty much knew; she will be President of Chile for the second time, taking over from Sebastian Piñera this coming March. Winning 62% of the votes cast surely suggests broad support, especially since many suggested that anything over 55% would indicate a mandate for her program, but it also provides evidence of a very well prepared and implemented strategy to wrest the presidency away from the rightist coalition that supported Piñera. To do so, Bachelet carefully and systematically inserted herself back into Chilean politics after a hiatus of four years, much of which was spent living in New York City and heading up the nascent UN Women program.
From the day she arrived back in Chile from New York, through the primary elections that put her firmly at the head of the “New Majority” ticket, the first round election in which she defeated the eight candidates convincingly but not enough to obtain the absolute majority necessary to avoid a runoff election, to last Sunday’s ho hum confirmation vote in which she not only held Evelyn Matthei to less than 40% of the votes but also added a few hundred thousands of voters to those who voted for her the first time, she built a solid case for why the voters should return her to the Presidency.
As the campaign signs began to appear again in the streets two weeks prior to the runoff election, a simple but telling distinction clearly defined the choice the voters were facing: Bachelet stated clearly that she would provide Chileans with “A New Constitution”, “Quality and Free Education for all”, “Appropriate Pensions”, “More and Better Employment”, “More Green Areas”, “More Sports”, “Culture For All”, “More Police, More Security”… more everything, so much more that it began to be a bit ridiculous. But at the end it worked.
Matthei, on the other hand, desperate to appeal to additional independent centrist voters, adopted the oft borrowed and overused phrase “Si Se Puede”, Yes We Can, to which the voters responded “no you can’t”. Two signs I saw just before the runoff election seemed to reflect well the juxtaposition the two candidates were offering: Bachelet’s sign stated “No More Abuses” (referring to recent scandals of consumer and corporate fraud many Bachelet supporters claim are inherent in Chile’s free market, neoliberal economic model), right next to Matthei’s sign stating “Yes We Can”. Surely the Bachelet sign was placed there last, but it seemed to sum up each candidate’s message all too well.
So, what happens now? Will the predictions of the Wall Street Journal types and the conservative right in Chile come true, that Bachelet will turn Chilean public policies significantly enough to the left to discourage private investment so necessary for Chile’s future growth? Will she lead the country into a wrenching constitutional total rewrite process? Will she carry out tax reform that results in economic de-stimulation? Will she attempt to remove all private investment in the education sector, returning education to total government control? In short, in her rush to do something significant about Chile’s unacceptable economic inequality will she throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater?
Or, will she move slowly and cautiously to remove from the constitution those elements that inhibit a more representational political system, to reform the tax system so she can change the way education is financed (inserting more public monies especially at the primary and secondary level), and to establish a government run pension system to compete with (and eventually replace?) the private system now in place? One US-based academic who follows Chile very closely recently stated that there is nothing about Bachelet’s team that suggests significant changes, that rather than a shift to the left feared by some, she will orchestrate a move to the center, ultimately making Chile “about as Socialist as the US”.
Regardless of how one sees it evolving, the President Elect has successfully completed the easy part, and now her skills at governing, not campaigning, will be tested. She has promised a lot, the world in fact, and she can in no way deliver all she has promised especially in the short term. Admittedly, she did not offer many details about how she would go about implementing her program. Many of her projects, if they are to result in “fundamental change” as she suggests (but which the commentator cited above does not believe), will take time. Even though she seems to have the majorities she needs in the Congress to get the legislation required to do most of what she has offered, she is dependent upon legislative support of a very diverse coalition, from the Communists on the left to the Christian Democrats and Radicals in the center (maybe even center-right). If she proceeds with grand, complex projects of constitutional, tax system, and education reform, she runs the risk of producing another “Transantiago”, or at least the appearance of one, and getting tied up in long, time consuming deliberations. If she slowly attacks these problems, which by the way most Chileans do agree need reform of some form, in chewable bites she runs the risk of disappointing her support on the left end of the spectrum and will be challenged increasingly from civil society’s favorite forum, “The Street”.
I have a feeling, though, that the three big issues, a new constitution, free public education at all levels, and tax reform will soon be addressed one way or another, and that other issues, that have not received much attention in the campaigns, will soon become urgent issues for Bachelet’s attention: energy policy, rights and roles of the indigenous people, environmental protection and its importance for the growing tourism industry, the effects of climate change on agriculture, forestry, and coastal development.
And of course, Chile’s relations with its neighbors need some attention. Soon the International Court in The Hague will make public its response to Peru’s claim for adjustment of the maritime border between the two countries. However this comes out, it will present a very delicate and potentially serious internal political and public opinion problem. There is the Bolivian claim (dream) of access to the Pacific Ocean that will continue to irritate relations between the two countries. Frankly, if you step back and view this issue with a broad lens, you would have to believe that a solution should be able to be found to this situation between two neighbors both of whom would greatly benefit from resolution of the issue and a more comprehensive bilateral cooperative relationship. And Argentina, well, Bachelet and Kirchner seem to be able to get along, in spite of their differences, so that relationship should be friendly. Hopefully both countries continue to work together to improve the transportation infrastructure and natural area preservation along the length of their common border, and that this most spectacular stretch of the Andes mountains becomes increasingly an attractive destination for lucrative nature-based tourism.
So, Bachelet has from now until March to name her team and craft her projects. We will begin to have some clues as to how “fundamental” the changes she has promised will be as she names her Ministers of Hacienda (dismantle the free market “model” or stay the course), Interior (serious effort to deal with the needs and aspirations of the Mapuche), Foreign Affairs (Stay committed to the economic Pacific Alliance or revert to stronger economic relations with Brazil and the Mercosur), and Environment (strong promotion of natural area protection, rational water use, sustainable forest and fisheries development, strong, timely environmental impact assessments prior to development project decision-making, or a continuation of hands off laissez faire approaches to environmental protection). An important issue is whether or not Bachelet continues to support an independent Central Bank. If she backs off this, it would have to be classified as “significant change”.
Chile is heading into a period some on the inside predict will lead the country back to the “chaos of the late 1960s and early 1970s”, others believe this is precisely what the country needs to “erase the dark footprint of the military dictatorship and its economic model”. Rising expectations and the inability of the Piñera government to satisfy these or even convince the majority of Chileans that he even wanted to satisfy their needs and desires led to his low popularity that spilled over negatively on the Matthei campaign. Bachelet is facing an even higher level of expectations, especially from the poor and the middle class; much of this fervor for change has been fed by her own litany of campaign promises. She has done very little to prepare the great majority of Chileans for the reality they will all face in March when she takes over the Presidency, the sacrifices some will have to make and the time it will take to deliver her program. She does, however, have a keen ability to show her empathy for what the common folks are facing, so she will have something of a honeymoon period, but that could end very quickly when these same folks begin to sense that either she really didn’t mean to deliver everything she promised, or that she just isn’t able to deliver.
So let’s see who she picks to join her team. I, for one, will be in Chile in March to witness her move back into La Moneda. It will be interesting, for it starts what will surely be another very interesting time for Chile and Chileans.
In the meantime, Happy Holidays to all readers of DAVES CHILE blog.
Posted in Leesburg, Virginia on December 20,2013
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David Joslyn, after a 45-year career in international development with USAID, Peace Corps, The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and private sector consulting firms, divides his time between his homes in Virginia and Chile.
Since 2010, David has been writing about Chile and Chileans, often based upon his experience with the Peace Corps in Chile and his many travels throughout the country with family and friends.