This weekend’s elections in Chile will likely usher in an overwhelming victory for Socialist former president Michelle Bachelet, perhaps precluding a run-off election in December before she replaces the outgoing right-wing billionaire Sebastián Piñera. Running on a platform of tax and education reform and a new constitution, Bachelet has tapped into the frustrations of millions of Chileans ready for a more inclusive government, and for a departure from the conservative and market-friendly policies favored by Piñera. Chilean conservatives fear that Bachelet’s leftist policies (expected to be much more leftist than her first term, because her coalition includes the Communist party) will disrupt the economic progress and record low unemployment rate kept under the right’s stewardship, and in a worst-case scenario, spawn the same economic turmoil that led to the demise of democratic Marxist Salvador Allende’s presidency in the early 1970s.
Although the country’s leading pollster points to a victory for Bachelet, Chile’s admirable veneer of development and normalcy are at once being challenged by the voices and protests of those who reject the social ills and inequality that so often seem to be the soft underbelly of globalized nations: In recent weeks alone, throngs of students in Santiago have taken over the principal avenue demanding free quality public education. Hundreds of cyclists masked as “encapuchados”—demonstrators notorious for causing mayhem at the close of student protests—biked through Santiago to protest draconian law enforcement policies. And Chile’s third-largest metropolitan area came under a sanitary alert due to garbage piling up on its streets as 14 unions for public administration workers kept up their strike, demanding a salary increase that Piñera had promised. In this intensely charged climate, Bachelet’s room for maneuver in her second term may be narrower than many think.
Chile has certainly come full circle from the truncated presidency of Socialist president Salvador Allende, who was toppled in a military coup in 1973. General Augusto Pinochet ruled the South American nation for the next 17 years using systematic suppression of political parties, repression of the opposition, and implementation of free-market economic policies. After democracy returned in 1990, Chile maintained both a strong political role for the military and continued to rely on orthodox fiscal and monetary policies. The military’s institutional prerogatives have subsequently ebbed, especially since Pinochet’s stunning but ultimately ephemeral detention in Britain on human rights charges in 1998 and death back in Chile eight years later.
Much of the drama of this election has been driven by history, as the two candidates are both daughters of opposing generals during the Pinochet years. In an indicator of the reach of the Pinochet regime’s crimes, Bachelet was detained and tortured during the early years of the dictatorship. Her father, an Air Force general who served in the Allende government, died of a heart attack resulting from repeated torture. Bachelet’s center-right opponent, Evelyn Matthei, is the daughter of a high-ranking general who served under Pinochet in a variety of high-level positions.
Matthei campaigned for Pinochet in the 1988 plebiscite, and in a recent interview with CNN, affirmed her “Sí” vote in favor of another eight years of his military rule, a vote she cast against the victorious “No’s.” During the Pinochet arrest saga, Matthei encouraged active repudiation of the European-lead effort to detain and try the former military chief. This past month, she expressed the belief that the Chilean military did not seek to seize power in 1973, but rather was sought by the citizenry during the distress of the Allende government.
This Sunday will be Chile’s first election with a voluntary vote, and at least 75 percent of voters are expected to go to the polls. While the election is expected to go off without a hitch, it was less than a year ago that the young and glamorous Camila Vallejo, an international media darling who was then president of the University of Chile Student Federation, led months of massive student protests demanding free universal education and the end of for-profit education in Chile.
Bachelet sympathizes with the students’ demands, and cites her lack of a congressional majority as the reason she could not answer their claims during her presidency four years ago. Bachelet still managed to leave office in 2010 with an 84 percent popularity rating, and waited out a turn before running again, as successive presidential terms are banned by the Chilean constitution. Still highly popular, sometimes personified as every Chilean’s tía (aunt) next-door, Bachelet’s self-assurance has been reflected in her conspicuous absence during the first presidential debate, and the late release of her platform only three weeks before the election.
But Bachelet cannot afford complacency. It will be essential, therefore, for the presently highly popular leader to spend some of her political capital to pursue a proactive approach to dealing with the surprisingly mobilized and spirited street protests and other forms of political dissent. (Chile is assumed to be boring these days!) She will also want to entirely replace Pinochet’s dubious constitution of 1980, an increasing anachronism in this country that by the day more resembles Denmark than, say, Bolivia or Venezuela.
Chile’s neighbors are demanding more as well, and in the realm of regional relations, Chile is anything but the friendly tía next-door. The country currently finds itself embroiled in two cases in the International Court of Justice. Just this August, Bolivia filed a lawsuit against Chile to reclaim the maritime access it lost after the War on the Pacific over 100 years ago. As audacious as Bolivia’s claim appears, Ecuador and Peru have publically aligned with Bolivia against Chile on the issue. Bolivia has repeatedly severed relations with Chile when negotiation failed, but leftist Bolivian President Evo Morales hopes that relations will improve after Bachelet’s return to the presidency. Meanwhile, Peru and Chile await a ruling on their maritime border dispute; a decision that was anticipated in September but seems to have been withheld during this sensitive election.
The peaceful and increasingly unremarkable rotation between the outgoing rightist Piñera with the leftist Bachelet is another sign that Chile’s democracy in the two decade-long post-Pinochet phase has put down deep roots. Yet Chile’s painful past remains alive in the minds of those older Chileans who were on one side or another during the polarized period of dictatorship. It is certainly on the minds of Bachelet and Matthei, who are both products of this military era. Ironically, though, the biggest challenges to Chile’s prosperity are coming not from the ghosts of its past, but rather the youth clamoring for a brighter future.
Update (November 18, 2013): Winning nearly 47% of the presidential vote, Michelle Bachelet¹s leftist coalition left the opposition trailing behind, but fell short of the simple majority required to win the presidential election, and the supermajorities in congress that may have facilitated her ambitious reforms. Current President Piñera hopes that Chileans will return to the polls in larger numbers on December 15th to decide the run-off between Bachelet and Evelyn Matthei, the rightist candidate who secured 25% of the vote. In his address to the nation on Sunday night, Piñera emphasized the importance of the popular mandate,” and urged Chileans to vote out of a love of country and surpass the first disappointing turnout of 66%. Until then, millions of undisclosed campaign contributions will continue to try to elicit those same votes.