Where did all go wrong for Michelle Bachelet?

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, June 16, 2015


Chilean president paralyzed under indecisiveness

Chilean president Michelle Bachelet became the first person since the restoration of democracy to win re-election in the country. After leaving office in March of 2010 with an 80 percent approval rating, Bachelet easily won the 2013 presidential election with 62 percent of the vote.


Having generated in the campaign high expectations of comprehensive reforms to reduce inequality and guarantee free university education to all, Bachelet has since struggled to prevent Chile from falling into a recession. Discontent with her government is at record highs, her government has been hit by corruption scandals and the President seems paralyzed.


Steam train economy

Since 1990, Chile has been a success story in Latin America. Democracy has consolidated and the economy has grown, poverty has decreased and the middle class has expanded. Though inequality remains high, it is lower than it ever before and opportunities keep on expanding as an unprecedented share of Chilean youth now has access to higher education. After 20 years of continued rule by the centre-left Concertación coalition (1990-2010), Chileans voted for a rightwing President in 2010. The alternation of power made businessman Sebastián Piñera the first conservative president since the Pinochet dictatorship. Piñera, a moderate and pragmatic leader, championed economic growth and introduced reforms intended to strengthen the market-friendly economic model.


However, Chileans mostly disapproved of Piñera as they perceived the government to be concerned with the well-being of the haves rather than the have-nots. Despite the good economic numbers, the Piñera-led government conservative Alianza had a dismal performance in the 2013 elections. The fact that the opposition candidate was former president Michelle Bachelet helps explain the big defeat suffered by the Alianza to the hands of the newly renamed Nueva Mayoría (former Concertación) coalition. Since she carried an overwhelming majority of seats in both chambers of Congress, Chileans gave Bachelet a free pass to implement all the reforms she deemed necessary.


A Spanner in the works

Bachelet’s decision to introduce comprehensive tax, labour and educational reforms set off several alarms during the 2013 campaign. The economy began to slow down before Bachelet was elected. In addition, the end of the commodity boom — with the sharp decline in the price of copper, Chile’s main export — also had negative effects on Chile’s economy. Yet, upon assuming power, Bachelet moved forward with the tax, educational and electoral law reforms. As a result, the economy only grew by 1.9 percent in 2014. Promising that things would be better in 2015, the government started the year introducing a new labour legislation reform and a second set of revised educational reforms.


The wheels fell off

Yet, a land speculation scandal involving Bachelet’s son and his wife in February caught the government by surprise. The slow and confusing reaction by the government hurt Bachelet’s approval. Even today, with the legal case languishing in court, most Chileans believed the President was not honest in the way she explained her knowledge of the scandal. A series of other campaign finance scandals that have affected legislators from all parties have ended up hurting the President as well. When her right hand man, the Minister of the Interior was implicated in some illegal funding for Bachelet’s own presidential campaign, the Chilean President was forced to reshuffle her cabinet. She did so spectacularly, announcing the shuffle in a televised interview. Though the move was intended to help Bachelet regain control of the political agenda, the move backfired as Bachelet missed the self-imposed 72-hour for the cabinet change. Even worse, less than a month after the shuffle, one of her new ministers resigned amid allegations of wrongdoing. More than a month after Bachelet’s spectacular move, the country is still immersed in the corruption scandals, the cabinet is missing a few members and Bachelet seems unable to regain control of the political agenda.

Chile’s economy is now expected to grow at less than 2.5 percent in 2015, with most people anticipating a downward correction in the coming months. The government seems paralyzed as two forces are fighting over what roadmap the government should follow. Some are pushing Bachelet to move forward with her promises of foundational reforms. Others, fearing that those who disapprove of Bachelet reject the radical approach that Bachelet brought to power in 2014, are pushing Bachelet to go back to the gradual and consensual style that she championed in her first administration, when she enjoyed high approval. Bachelet seems unable to decide which way to take. Thus, her government is paralyzed, but there are constant skirmishes between those who want to move forward with more reforms and those who want to go back to moderate reforms.


Huffing and a puffing

With only 15 months into her administration, Bachelet is going through her most difficult moment in office. Having disappointed those who voted for her hoping that she would replay her first successful term and fearing to disappoint those who supported her based on her promises of radical reform, President Bachelet finds herself between a rock and a hard place.


So far, she seems unable to make up her mind as to how to proceed. Her falling approval rating indicates that her inaction is disappointing almost everyone in Chile.