Michelle Bachelet sweeps back into power in Chile's presidential election

Socialist Michelle Bachelet returned to power with 62 per cent of vote in Chile election

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 10:37am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 December, 2013, 3:46am

Michelle Bachelet won Sunday’s presidential run-off, returning centre-left parties to power by promising free education for all and plans to narrow the gap between the rich and poor, after years of protests.

Bachelet won 62.2 per cent of the vote, the most decisive victory in eight decades of Chilean elections. Her conservative rival, Evelyn Matthei, only got 37.8 per cent and conceded defeat in the worst performance for the right in two decades.

The 62-year-old president-elect, who led the country from 2006 to 2010, will take office on March 11. She is also the first to win a second term since Chile’s return to democracy in 1990.

Bachelet needs the momentum of her resounding victory to strengthen her mandate and try to overcome congressional opposition to fulfil her promises.

She ended her previous presidency with 84 per cent approval ratings despite failing to achieve any major changes. This time, however, activists are vowing to hold her to her promises, which include raising corporate taxes to 25 per cent from 20 per cent to help fund an education overhaul, as well as changing the dictatorship-era constitution, a difficult goal given congressional opposition.

“The social and political conditions are here and at last the moment has arrived,” Bachelet told more than 10,000 cheering supporters gathered for her victory speech.

“If I’m here, it’s because we believe that a Chile for everyone is necessary. It won’t be easy, but when has it been easy to change the world?”

Many Chileans complain that policies imposed by Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-1990 dictatorship have kept wealth and power in few hands. Pinochet effectively ended land reform by selling off the nation’s water, and he preserved the best educations for elites by ending the central control and funding of public schools.

Watch: Chile's Bachelet, from torture victim to successful politician

Opinion polls pointed early to a bruising defeat for Matthei, a former labour minister, because of her past support for Pinochet and her ties to outgoing President Sebastian Pinera.

Pinera, a billionaire entrepreneur, was Chile’s first centre-right president since 1990 and is the most unpopular, with just 34 per cent support.

This was Chile’s first presidential election after voter registration became automatic, increasing the electorate from 8 million to 13.5 million, out of a population of 17 million. But voting became optional with the change, and only 50 per cent of voters turned out in the first round, frustrating both the major coalitions. In the run-off, only 5.5 million voted.

“It’s not quite the mandate she wanted,” said Patricio Navia, a political science professor at New York University. “There isn’t a majority of Chileans that want radical changes, the majority stayed home and didn’t vote.”

Pinera, in a speech to congratulate Bachelet’s victory, said politicians would have to listen to those Chileans who voted and those that did not.

Rivals with history

The recent poll also was Chile’s first choice between two women, both with long careers in politics.

Bachelet and Matthei share a dramatic history: playmates while growing up on a military base, they found themselves on opposite sides of Chile’s wide political divide after the 1973 military coup.

Bachelet’s father was an air force officer, and her mother was an archaeologist.

When she was young, her father was stationed at Cerro Moreno air base in far northern Chile, where among the neighbours was air force officer Fernando Matthei and his young daughter Evelyn.

Bachelet and Matthei, then aged six and four, sometimes played together.

While the two girls were not great friends or in the same class, growing up on a military base instilled them with a sense of order, duty and a love of learning.

WATCH: Former friends turned presidential rivals

Bachelet joined the Socialist Youth as a teenager and studied medicine, while her father, Alberto, rose to the rank of general and became a close adviser to elected socialist president Salvador Allende. When right-wing officers launched a military coup in September 1973 that killed Allende, Alberto was on the list of suspects.

The general was imprisoned at a military school and tortured, and died from his wounds six months after being released. The school commandant was Fernando Matthei. A later inquiry absolved him of any role in Alberto Bachelet’s torture.

The Bachelets, however, remained “suspects”, and secret police whisked Michelle Bachelet and her mother to a torture centre in January 1975. She has rarely spoken about her experience.

Bachelet entered the campaign as Chile marked the 40th anniversary of the coup this year.

Bachelet was imprisoned herself and forced into exile to the former East Germany.

When she returned to Chile in 1979, she studied medicine, specialising in paediatrics. She began working at an organisation that helped children with mental health problems whose parents had been victims of the dictatorship.

At the same time, she rose through the Socialist Party and became a key player in the centre-left coalition that dominated Chile’s government for almost 20 years after Pinochet gave up power.

She went on to lead the United Nations’ women’s unit. But she came home to Chile this year saying “we knew there were things still to be done”.

Economic aims

Bachelet is known as an astute negotiator, and her charisma and ability to evoke a close relationship with people has on occasion helped her overcome mistakes. But her critics say her faults have not been few or small.

When a devastating earthquake struck in 2010, killing more than 500 people just 11 days before the end of her term, the national emergency office failed to issue a tsunami warning. Many coastal dwellers had figured they were safe, and failed to run to higher ground.

Chile is the world’s top copper producer, and its fast-growing economy, low unemployment and stable democracy are the envy of Latin America. But many Chileans say more of the copper wealth should be used to fix the underfunded public education system.

While Chile is the wealthiest country in Latin America, it also has the highest income inequality in the 34-nation Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

“Abroad you often hear that this country has been growing and progressing more than others in Latin America, but it can’t be just a matter of growth,” Paola Bustamante, a 40-year-old sculptor, said after voting for Bachelet. “We need urgent educational reform, improvements to health, and I feel Bachelet can fulfil promises of deep changes this time around.”

The changes will bring Chile more into line with its counterparts in Latin American, where Colombia has a corporate tax rate of 25 per cent, and Peru and Mexico have 30 per cent. Five years ago, Chile had a tax rate of 17 per cent, half Colombia’s 33 per cent.

With additional reporting from Bloomberg, AFP