Chilean Voters Return a Former President to Power
By Simon Romero and Pascale Bonnefoy, NY Times, December 15, 2013
SANTIAGO, Chile—Chilean voters handed a landslide victory to Michelle Bachelet on Sunday, returning her to the presidency amid continuing unease over high levels of inequality in Chile despite an enviable stretch of rapid economic growth.
Ms. Bachelet received about 62 percent of the vote, compared with 38 percent for her opponent, Evelyn Matthei, according to preliminary results from the Chilean electoral service. Ms. Matthei conceded defeat.
Ms. Bachelet, who was widely admired as president from 2006 to 2010, when her policies helped shield Chile from a sharp downturn during the global financial crisis, has put forth an ambitious package of proposals that would, among other things, increase corporate taxes, expand access to higher education and overhaul the 1980 Constitution, which dates to the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
Her platform contrasted sharply with the anti-tax views of Ms. Matthei, a former labor minister who belongs to the most conservative wing of the governing coalition of President Sebastián Piñera, a right-wing billionaire. Ghosts of the Pinochet era hung over this year’s race; unlike Mr. Piñera himself, Ms. Matthei voted in favor of General Pinochet in the 1988 plebiscite that opened the way for democracy to be re-established in Chile.
After Ms. Bachelet narrowly missed earning an outright victory in a first election round in November, some voters predicted a shake-up to the political establishment in Chile, one of Latin America’s most socially conservative countries. It stands out in the region for maintaining a total ban on abortion and resisting efforts to legalize same-sex marriage, as the authorities have done in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.
If Ms. Bachelet, a 62-year-old pediatrician, is able to advance her proposals, Chile, one of the region’s first countries to aggressively expose its economy to market forces in the 1970s and 1980s, may once again be seen as a laboratory for policy experimentation in Latin America.
"There are concerns that the country’s enormous progress in recent decades will be undone," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington policy group. "But it is far more likely that Chile will remain pretty much on its present course, with continued growth joined with more serious efforts at improving health and education and pursuing greater social justice."
For now at least, commodities exports are delivering robust economic growth. The economy, while slowing somewhat from last year, is forecast to expand more than 4 percent in 2013. But many Chileans complain that most of the riches from the boom are still controlled by a relatively small elite.
Chile has the highest level of income inequality among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 34 member countries. That explains, at least in part, why Mr. Piñera’s approval ratings remain lower than 40 percent and Ms. Matthei’s pledges to continue with many of his policies have failed to resonate with voters.
Disappointment with Mr. Piñera’s administration, Chile’s first right-wing government since the country’s transition to democracy in the 1990s, led to waves of student protests and the recent election of some leaders of social movements to Congress.