It is difficult to look ahead in the midst of an anniversary which, almost by definition, is designed to make Chileans look to the past. Since the return to democracy, Chilean society has made a conscious effort to ignore the past and concentrate instead on the country’s future.
A Bachelet victory in November’s election (or the runoff in December) appears all but certain, and the policies her future government implements undoubtedly will be strongly influenced by Chile’s history. Still, she has not proved intransigent. In an effort to meet the demands of a highly motivated youth lead movement and an inherently shifting society, Bachelet has already committed to working towards a new constitution and free higher education — policies that push against the more traditional, Pinochet-enshrined political legacy of fiscal prudence, social conservativism, and a market-based education system.
However controversial and politically risky, these promises carry with them a new and important undertone: modernization. Difficult issues like the environment and gay marriage figure prominently in Bachelet’s election platform. A proposed tax reform would attempt to eliminate a Pinochet-era loophole for the wealthiest Chileans that is largely cited as pivotal in maintaining the country’s stubbornly high income inequality and sorely limited social mobility. For Bachelet, surpassing the legacy of the past, it seems, also means taking a leap towards the future.
Forty years after the breakdown of democratic rule, Chilean democracy enters its middle age — with more bravado perhaps, but also more chaos. As much as the country’s past remains a point of deep controversy and disagreement, the future seems to hold something different. Michelle Bachelet’s popularity has only been augmented as her electoral promises increasingly push the traditional envelope of Chilean politics.
Is Chile’s democracy facing a mid-life crisis? Perhaps. But however chaotic, can driving the country’s progress and politics forward really be called a crisis at all?
Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Robert Funk is director of the Center for the Study of Public Opinion at the University of Chile.