The return of Michelle Bachelet

Chile looks to the future with the Nov. 17 presidential election, with former president Michelle Bachelet the clear front runner. When she was first inaugurated as Chile’s president in March 2006, she brought many promises of change. In a country with a contentious political past and a history of divisions not only between the two main political coalitions but also within each of them, Bachelet promised many reforms. Moreover, she promised to carry out the reforms in a consensual manner.

Candidate Bachelet’s promises were abundant.

First and foremost, she promised socioeconomic change and drastic reductions in poverty and inequality. She also promised to end the machista and elite-based political system by emphasizing gender parity in the administration; and she promised a gobierno ciudadano, or government of the people; she promised pension and educational reform, as well as a much-needed change in the country’s unrepresentative binomial electoral system, a remnant of the Pinochet constitution.

For the charismatic president, the goal of consensus meant arriving at the important changes that the country needed through a deliberative process carried out in large commissions that represented different social and economic groups. While this approach allowed her to enact a much needed and important pension reform, it did not allow her to achieve the educational or electoral reforms she wished to implement, nor could she make inroads in the reduction of poverty and inequality, or end the male and elite dominated political system.

Because of her charismatic personality and successful macroeconomic management, particularly after the 2008 international financial crisis, President Bachelet finished her four-year presidential period with massive popular support and great international prestige.

Bachelet’s current campaign platform contains even more radical promises than the previous one. This time, Bachelet is calling not just to reform the electoral system, but for a Constitutional Convention that would entirely replace the 1980 constitution. She is promising not just marginal reforms to the educational system, but an entirely new approach to education based on the idea of free education for all as a response to the massive and dynamic student-led strikes against Chile’s privatized educational system.

There are new promises as well: tax reform, animal rights policies, water policies and more doctors and dentists. In short, the list is quite exhaustive. Bachelet cannot fulfill these promises without challenging the existing neoliberal economic order, based on free trade and low taxes, something no Chilean president has done since 1990 and something she did not do while occupying the Presidential Palace.

Given the large support that Bachelet received in the primaries and the disarray in the right-wing coalition, Bachelet is expected to win the 2013 elections easily. The question of how to carry out her program in the context of a divided political system and her emphasis on a consensual approach to policy making will once again be the most critical challenges of her second term. To get anything done, Bachelet is going to need not only a united coalition, but also the support of sectors of the political right, which has shown no interest in increasing taxes or changing fiscal policies.

Overall, Bachelet’s dilemma mirrors Chile’s profound social and economic divisions. The country is held up as a model of stability and economic growth, but is also highly unequal and it has not succeeded in improving education, a critical factor in the fight against poverty and inequality. As a result, there is a lot of dissatisfaction, which is shown in the high levels of crime, strikes and a very unpopular congress. It is very likely that Chileans will have a second Bachelet administration, but it is not very likely that she will be able to fulfill the many promises she has made.

Silvia Borzutzky is teaching professor of political science and international relations at Carnegie Mellon University. Gregory Weeks is professor and chair of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. They are the editors of The Bachelet Government: Conflict and Consensus in Post-Pinochet Chile.

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