As Chilean voters prepare to go to the polls on Nov. 17 to decide the country’s future, the leading presidential candidates Evelyn Matthei and Michelle Bachelet have brought the past into focus.
Two months after the 40-year anniversary of a 1973 military coup that set off a brutal dictatorship in Chile, the daughters of generals on opposite sides of the regime are vying for presidency.
The women’s fathers, General Fernando Matthei and General Alberto Bachelet, were friends and colleagues in the Air Force in the 1960s until the 1973 coup, when Fernando Matthei backed the dictatorship and became director at the Air Force Academy where Alberto Bachelet was later tortured and killed.
Chile’s past is at the forefront in the elections, not only due to the candidates’ histories but also because of increasing demands to reform the constitution, which was written by General Augusto Pinochet’s regime in 1980. Bachelet has proposed replacing it entirely, but Matthei noted that constitutional reform is unnecessary, saying, “People want politicians to help them in their daily lives, they are not interested in ideological discussions like what type of constitution we are going to have.”
Bachelet disagrees, and said, “Chile needs a constitution that takes into account the changes of recent decades, which reflects our everyday Chile and establishes a clear relation between the State and citizens.”
The demand for a new constitution is part of a major political shift in the country. Two parties have been in power since the dictatorship’s end in 1990: The Concertacion (center and left-wing parties) and the Chilean Alliance (right-wing parties), but many voters are now questioning this long-held divide. In response to its decrease in popularity, the Concertacion recently changed its name and created a new coalition, the New Majority, which became more leftist and now includes the Communist party.
Bachelet and Matthei are competing along with seven other candidates, and despite the historical drama, the race’s outcome is already essentially decided. With polls showing Bachelet with 47 percent of the vote to Matthei’s 14 percent, the question is not who will win, but when. Under Chile’s electoral rules, a candidate has to secure more than 50 percent of the vote to win the presidency in the first round, something that has not been accomplished since 1993. If Bachelet does not win on Nov. 17, a runoff election will take place in December. However, a poll published on Oct. 25 showed Bachelet was gaining support at a rate that sets her to have 54 percent of the votes by the election day, making it possible she will win outright.
Bachelet is not new to the country’s presidency. She served as Chile’s first female president from 2006 to 2010 and left office with a record approval rating of 84 percent. Chile’s constitution prevented her from running for a second consecutive term. As a member of the Socialist Party, Bachelet represents a moderate shift to the left from the incumbent center-right government of President Sebastián Piñera and his Alianza Coalition. Piñera’s four-year presidency has been marked by massive protests and the lowest approval ratings since the dictatorship ended in 1990.
Matthei, also a member of the Alianza Coalition, says she wants to “deepen” the current political model and promises economic growth. As she has been serving as a labor minister for the past four years under Piñera, Chile added 300,000 jobs and the unemployment rate fell from 7.3 percent to 5.7 percent. Matthei vowed her government would add 600,000 more jobs if she is elected.
Education reform has been a major concern in the elections this year, with tens of thousands of protestors demanding the government take back control of the largely privatized universities and make education free. Bachelet said she would increase corporate taxes from 20 to 25 percent and close tax loopholes for corporations in order to finance free schooling, a measure Matthei opposes.
“Education is a social right and not a consumer good; and if it is a social right, why then should it depend on what one can afford and pay?” Bachelet said.
Years of education protests with no concrete outcome have left voters disillusioned and distrustful of politicians, compelling the candidates to take stances on issues never before discussed.
Despite her considerable lead, Bachelet has been forced by the political climate to make many promises for reform. Stefan Bauchowitz, a researcher at the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics said it is unclear how well Bachelet will be able to follow through on her campaign plans.
“The reform proposals themselves are rather vague and it's quite difficult to see from her program how and what exactly she would implement,” he said. “It's possible that her electoral victory will suffer from Obama's curse, in the sense that many of the ideas that propelled him to victory in 2008 were ultimately killed off or at least watered down in Congress.”
Bachelet’s inevitable victory comes at a time when Chile’s past casts a shadow over the uncertain future of social and political orders in one of Latin America’s largest economies. Despite her notable popularity, it is likely Bachelet will need to address the ongoing turmoil when she takes office — the question is how.
By Kari Paul, Julia Lugon and Elian Peltier.