High expectations for Bachelet

Patricio Navia


Buenos Aires Herald, December 17, 2013


After a resounding run-off victory, Michelle Bachelet will have little time to savour her sweet win over right-wing candidate Evelyn Matthei. Though her inauguration will happen only on March 11, 2014, the President-elect will have to start addressing the high expectations her second presidency has generated.


When four years ago she left office with 80 percent approval, many people believe that Bachelet was already a shoe-in to replace Sebastián Piñera, the first right-wing president since democracy was restored in 1990. Amid criticisms for her government’s bad handling of the 2010 earthquake, Bachelet chose to keep a low profile until she accepted the position of director of UN Women. During the more than two years that she lived in New York, Bachelet was able to stay away from daily politics. She was not in Chile when the 2011 student protests erupted and did not suffer from the growing discontent with traditional political parties and politicians.


When Bachelet returned in March of 2013 to become a presidential candidate, she had successfully positioned herself as a larger-than-life leader. The sharp contrast between her personable figure and the distant and often excessive personality of Piñera further aided her good standing among Chileans. Bachelet led in all voting intention polls since the campaign unofficially began immediately after her arrival. The low popularity of President Piñera and the difficulties the right-wing Alianza coalition had in finding a suitable presidential candidate made the election just a democratic exercise to ratify Bachelet as the next president. However, though her coalition received a resounding victory in the legislative elections of November 17, Bachelet ended up three percent short of winning a clear majority in the first-round vote. Though the vote was disappointing, as she almost doubled the number of vote for runner-up Evelyn Matthei—and since most of the other votes went to candidates to the left of Bachelet—the run-off vote was a foregone conclusion.


Bachelet campaigned intensely to convince her supporters to show up and vote on December 15. Although Bachelet called it a transformative election, only four out of ten Chileans showed up at the polling precincts. Opponents of Bachelet claim that having received the lowest number of votes of any president since 1989, Bachelet lacks a mandate to implement radical transformations. Sympathizers reckon that the fact that people did not actively vote against the promises of a new Constitution, tax reform and universal quality free education for all indicates that the country is ready to move forward with deep reforms.


As the country with the most successful economic track record in the past two decades, Chile represents a puzzle for many observers. The country is clearly doing well, but candidates campaign on promises of radical transformations. Though levels of inequality remain high, poverty is no longer a pressing issue. People’s demands for free education have put the Piñera government against the wall, but those demands also constitute undeniable evidence that Chileans are concerned with things that would be considered luxuries elsewhere in Latin America.


Free access to public quality education has become a symbol of the demand for social inclusion and reductions in inequality. If education is the best predictor of long-term income and the bridge to middle class status, demands for education are a reaffirmation that Chileans want to keep the market-friendly economic model in place. They want to keep the goose that lays the golden eggs, but want the government to make sure that the golden eggs are better distributed. The overwhelming support received by Bachelet — from among those who bothered to vote — constitutes a show of trust that Bachelet can deliver the promise of greater equality.


Unfortunately for Bachelet, the Chilean economy is slowing down. The price of copper, Chile’s leading export, has fallen and is likely to continue to go downhill. A slow-growing economy will result in higher unemployment and will likely put pressure on the government to increase social spending. There will be good economic arguments to delay the implementation of tax reform. Implementing an aggressive tax reform in times of an economic slowdown might indeed kill the goose the lays the golden eggs. Since Chileans want better distribution because they take economic growth for granted, anxiety will run high if people start to fear that the promise of middle-class status begins to slip away.


Still, people will hold Bachelet accountable for the promises she made as a candidate. Though she qualified her early commitment to offer free education to all, many—including the poor that overwhelmingly supported her on Sunday—expect that their lives will change drastically when Bachelet takes office. Without the luxury of a honeymoon, Bachelet will be hard-pressed to deliver results quickly. After feeding the high expectations and making ambitious promises about a new constitution, a profound tax reform to better fund social programs, a new pension reform, a health reform and more mechanisms of participatory democracy, President-elect Bachelet will now have to begin paying all those promissory notes she issued as a candidate.