In My Opinion

Andres Oppenheimer: Chile will veer to the left - but not much

Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet is likely to win the Dec. 15 runoff election by a landslide, and the conventional wisdom is that her new coalition, which includes the Communist Party, will make a sharp turn to the left. But the conventional wisdom may be wrong.

Here are five reasons why Bachelet may come back to the presidency with a more leftist rhetoric, and perhaps closer ties with authoritarian populist governments of Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela, but without departing from Chile’s pro-market economic policies or its economic alliance with Peru, Colombia and México.

First, Bachelet won by nearly 47 percent in Sunday’s first round election, short of the more than 50 percent she would have needed to win without a runoff vote. What’s more, she did worse than expected with voters in the middle-class dominated Chilean capital, Santiago, and in the country’s north.

That will force her to veer to the center for the Dec. 15 vote. Otherwise, under new election rules that make voting non-mandatory, Bachelet runs the risk of being elected with the lowest vote percentage since the restoration of democracy in 1990.

Second, while Bachelet got enough seats in Congress to pass her proposed tax and education reforms — she wants to raise corporate taxes to the rich and use the proceeds to fund free university education for all — she will not have enough votes to change the constitution. During the campaign, she had proposed changing the constitution to allow major political reforms.

Third, while Bachelet will want to go down in history as the president who dramatically reduced social inequality in Chile, she will not want to be remembered as the one who spoiled two decades of steady economic growth and poverty reduction.

Chile’s poverty has plummeted from 40 percent in 1990 to 14 percent today, according to United Nation figures. Chile’s per capita income, in turn, has risen from about $5,000 to nearly $20,000 over the same period, more than in any other country in the region.

And Bachelet will not want to look bad when compared with outgoing President Sebastian Piñera, who will leave office with a 5.5 percent economic growth rate, and a 3 percent inflation rate this year.

Fourth, Bachelet’s ruling coalition will be strained by ideological differences between the center-left Christian Democrats and the Communist Party, which will force her to maintain a delicate balance in order not to lose any of her main backers. The Communist Party was not part of Bachelet ’s ruling coalition during her first presidency, between 2006 and 2010.

Fifth, on foreign policy, the world has changed a lot since Bachelet left the presidency. During her time in office, oil prices hit a record of $146 a barrel, and late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was touring the world giving away petro-dollars to buy allegiances for his allegedly anti-capitalist “Bolivarian revolution.”

Today, Venezuela’s dubiously elected President Nicolás Maduro is against the ropes, facing more than 50 percent annual inflation rates and growing food shortages. And China has just announced new pro-market measures, which should leave Bachelet with little doubt of which way the winds are blowing.

“In foreign policy, the current (Piñera) government has isolated us from Latin America,” Ricardo Solari, a close adviser to Bachelet, told me this week. “Our priority will be to strengthen relations with Argentina, and resume our ties with the continent, which are very important to us.”

Chile suffers from a crisis of rising expectations, brought about by the country’s economic growth, and the best way to preserve the “Chilean model” will be to satisfy the demands of those who have been left behind, other people close to Bachelet told me. The student protests of recent years are just a symptom of the widespread frustration, they said.

Solari, the Bachelet advisor, agreed that “the only thing that puts the ‘Chilean model’ at risk is not making changes.”

My opinion: If she wins, as expected, Bachelet will return to power as a smiling version of Brazil’s stern-looking President Dilma Rousseff.

Many of us will criticize her for her probable olive branches to dictatorships, like when she made a presidential visit to Cuba in 2009 and dedicated a book fair in a country where most books are banned.

But, for the reasons stated above, I doubt that a Bachelet presidency would mark the end of the “Chilean model.” Perhaps, as Solari says, some of her reforms will be needed in order to preserve the “Chilean model.”

Read more Andres Oppenheimer stories from the Miami Herald

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