Bachelet wins first round of Chile presidential vote, runoff Dec. 15

Chile’s first female head of state, Michelle Bachelet, far outpaced her challengers in Sunday’s presidential election but failed to get the 50 percent of the vote she needed to avoid a second round at the polls.

The two women — childhood friends who briefly went to the same primary school and who lived opposite each other on the same street — will now faceoff in mid-December.

“Today, Chileans have voted for a new way of working together, for a new way of doing politics, for inclusion and for participation,” Bachelet told supporters. “And this gives us heart to win again in December. We’ll head into this second round seeing it as a great opportunity to start a new era.”

Matthei, 60, who has advocated business-friendly policies, told supporters that forcing Bachelet into a runoff was “certainly a triumph.”

"Now it's down to just two candidates and we're going to be able to make our points, to argue, to debate,” Matthei said. “We're going to go into the second round with a message of moderation, a message with a broad appeal — about how we can continue to develop this wonderful country. And we're going to win in the second round."

Despite her failure to win an outright victory, Bachelet seems certain to be sworn in next March as the successor to billionaire businessman Sebastian Piñera, who has ruled Chile for the past four years.

“She looks certain to win but I don’t think she can take the votes of all the smaller candidates, who didn’t make the runoff, for granted,” said Robert Funk, assistant professor of political science at the University of Chile. “One of the interesting things about this election has been the extent to which many of the candidates haven’t defined themselves as either ‘left’ or ‘right.’”

If she does win, Bachelet will become the first Chilean president since 1952 to win a second term. Under the constitution, presidents in Chile are barred from serving consecutive terms and can only seek reelection at a later date.

An atheist and a divorced single mother, Bachelet is seen by many Chileans as an antidote to the traditional, Roman Catholic conservatism of the country’s political elite. She has managed to tap into a deep current of discontent in the country, among the poor, the young and students, who have staged huge street protests in favor of education reform in recent years.

“I want real change,” said Claudia Elliott after casting her vote in the eastern Santiago district of La Reina, where Bachelet also voted. “In Chile, everything seems great on the surface but there are still a lot of people living in real poverty.

“There’s a lot of talk about entrepreneurship; they keep building new shopping malls. It all looks and sounds lovely, but it’s not real. I want real change, that’s why I voted for Bachelet,” Elliott said.

Gabriela Warner, another voter, said education and constitutional reform were her most pressing issues.

“I don’t think everything will change in just four years, but the fact there are more alternatives in this election, more points of view, more candidates, bodes well for the future,” she said.

Everything suggests a second Bachelet administration would be more radical than her first. To students, she is offering nothing less than full state-funding for all those in higher education, to be rolled out over the next six years. As a first step, during her four-year term, the state would pay the tuition fees of the poorest 70 percent of Chile’s higher education students.

In an education system as heavily dependent on household funding as Chile’s, this is an ambitious and costly proposal. In all, Bachelet’s education reforms will — by her own admission — require extra funding of 1.5 percent to 2 percent of GDP each year.

Bachelet says that money would come from tax reform. She wants to gradually raise Chile’s basic corporate tax rate to 25 percent — a 5 percent hike — over the next four years while reducing the top rate of personal income tax from 40 percent to 35 percent. Business leaders have complained that her economic proposals will hit investment just when economic growth is slowing.

Aside from education and tax reform, the third pillar of Bachelet’s campaign is constitutional change. She says Chile needs a new constitution to replace the one drawn up under General Augusto Pinochet in 1980, and a new electoral system. The current one ensures that the two big coalitions get almost all the seats in Congress, split fairly evenly between them.

One of Bachelet’s challenges, if elected, will be to keep her coalition in check. During her first government, she headed a four-party coalition but this time she represents seven parties. At one end of the spectrum sits the Communists while at the other sits the Christian Democrats. On ethical issues like relaxation of Chile’s strict abortion laws and the legalization of gay marriage, they do not see eye-to-eye.

“It will not be an easy ride,” Funk said. “The communists will not want to toe the line.”

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.

With the presidential contest seemingly a foregone conclusion, the fight for congressional seats has become crucial. On Sunday, all 120 seats in Congress were up for grabs along with 20 of the 38 seats in the Senate. Full results of those elections were expected on Monday, and Bachelet will be hoping for a clear majority in both houses to help her push through her program for government.