SANTIAGO, Chile -- Large billboards and posters of the candidates in Sunday’s presidential elections lined the main avenues and junctions of Santiago on Friday, a day after the official close of campaigning. As for the candidates, they largely stayed out of sight.
But on Sunday, all eyes will be on Michelle Bachelet, the 62-year-old leader of the New Majority coalition, who is widely expected to win the vote and perhaps even avoid a December runoff.
A day earlier, Bachelet, who served as president from 2006 to 2010, delivered an impassioned closing speech before an audience of thousands in Santiago’s Quinta Normal park.
The physician-turned-politician promised to bring greater equality to Chile’s impoverished lower class and to overhaul the constitution.
Describing inequality as a “large wound” in Chile, she issued a rallying cry to supporters to vote in what will be Chile’s first non-mandatory election since the country’s return to democracy in 1990.
“People want and need to live in a fairer Chile which is less unequal,” she said. “[Inequality] is our main obstacle. It is the thorn in our side just when we think we are a truly modern country.”
Bachelet has maintained a steady lead in the polls. A survey published by the Santiago-based Center for Public Studies at the end of October indicated that she will get as many as 47 percent of the vote, just shy of the 51 percent needed to avoid a runoff. Eight other candidates are seeking the presidency, which makes an outright win difficult.
Bachelet’s last term — the constitution prohibits presidents from serving successive terms — is widely viewed to have been a success, although her administration was rocked by massive students protests. Robert Funk, assistant professor of political science at the University of Chile, said Bachelet will have to produce quick results if elected.
“Expectations are very high and Bachelet doesn’t have four years to deliver; she has six months or a year,” he said. “If the students don’t see major progress between now and May, Chile is going to see major student demonstrations against Bachelet.”
Maria Eugenia, a 70-year-old housewife, said she intended to vote for Bachelet because she wanted to see greater fairness in Chile’s society.
“I want to see a new constitution enshrined and better education as well as dignity for all,” she said.
The campaign has focused mostly on domestic issues but Bachelet has said that Chile’s role in shaping global events will increase in January when Chile replaces Guatemala on the United Nations Security Council. That would give Chile an important vote on critical issues, including international response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Chile has one of the strongest ties to the U.S. in Latin America. Over the past three years, U.S. imports of iron and steel from Chile have risen 180 percent while imports of wood pulp and aluminum rose 214 percent and 177 percent respectively.
Bachelet faces the strongest competition from right-wing candidate Evelyn Matthei, who represents the Alliance coalition. She ended her campaign some 250 miles south of the capital. Speaking at a rally in Chillán, the former Minister of Labour and Social Welfare reiterated plans to impose tougher penalties on criminals.
“We have the most serious problems with repeat offenders,” she said. “We have people who have been arrested 39 times and yet still remain free. People are fed up of seeing more concern shown for the people who break the law than for those who are the victims of crime.”
Brought in as a replacement for Pablo Longueira, the Alliance’s original presidential candidate who stepped down after being diagnosed with clinical depression, Matthei has struggled to win support.
A wave of protest movements combined with rising social discontent over the state of public service has sullied the reputation of President Sebastian Piñera, making securing a second term for the right formidable.
While Matthei has outlined plans to create 600,000 jobs, improve the health system and crack down on crime, she has not resonated with voters as the charismatic Bachelet.
Her paternal background has also not helped her gain favour with Chile’s large, left-leaning population. She has been hurt by the fact that her father was a senior member of the military junta that deposed democratically elected Marxist President Salvador Allende in 1973.
While both women have stressed that they do not want their family backgrounds to influence voters’ decisions, memories of the dictatorship remain fresh in a country that recently commemorated the 40th anniversary of the coup.
In the 17-year dictatorship, during which more than 40,000 people were detained or tortured and 3,000 killed or permanently missing, Fernando Matthei was promoted to Air Force Commander in Chief, one of the highest offices in the Air Force.
By contrast, Bachelet’s father, Alberto, also an Air Force general at the time of the coup, remained loyal to Allende. He was imprisoned and tortured for six months before dying of a heart attack from his injuries.
Despite their family histories, the focus of the campaign has been on the economy. Key questions remain about how far the country will advance under a second Bachelet administration.
In the past three years, Chile’s economy has expanded at an average of 5.7 percent per year, unemployment fell from 9 percent in March 2010 to 5.7 percent in July 2013 and new business-friendly policies have made the country a magnet for foreign investment, which have totaled more than $15 billion since 2010.
By contrast, economic growth averaged 3 percent per year during Bachelet’s last term, which coincided with the global financial crisis. The rate of unemployment rose from 8.4 percent to 8.5 percent and the country attracted $9.72 billion in foreign investment in the first three years of her administration.
Despite being one of the fastest-growing countries in Latin America, inequality remains a major challenge. In 2009, 10 percent of Chileans earned 42.8 percent of all income, according to the World Bank.
Funk, the university professor, said Bachelet would have to use all of her political capital to manage high expectations.
“She will have a lot of social pressure on her to live up to the expectation of the promise of reform — not just constitutional reform, but also political reform, tax reform and judicial reform,” he said. “In Chile, it’s not that easy to do these things.”