Michelle Bachelet: Chile's next president?

Roberto Espíndola
6 December 2005

This Sunday, 11 December 2005, could be regarded as just another of Chile’s routine polling days since the return to democracy in 1990. Well into the hot, southern-hemisphere summer and with bars and restaurants closed, the occasion will be used to hold a family gathering or make a day trip to the seaside, perhaps after voting early in the morning. Formally, voting is compulsory, but in reality it isn’t, since no sanctions are enforced on non-voters. Chileans, however, follow tradition and tend to turn out at the polls in large numbers.

If one tradition will be upheld on Sunday, this time there is a reason for Chilean voters to break with another – the male domination of Chilean politics. The leading candidate, who seems certain at least to go through to the second-round polls on 15 January, is the socialist candidate (and defence minister, 2002-04), Michelle Bachelet. Bachelet, 54, is a medical doctor who as a young student was imprisoned and tortured after General Augusto Pinochet’s military coup of 1973; she is also divorced and a single mother, until recently an important minus in a conservative, Catholic society.

Also in openDemocracy on Latin American politics in 2005:

“Mexican democracy in peril” (April 2005)

“America’s protean left: José Miguel Insulza and the OAS” (July 2005)

Hilary Wainwright, “No end: the crisis of Brazil’s Workers’ Party” (September 2005)

Isabel Hilton, “Álvaro Uribe’s gift: Colombia’s mafia goes legit” (October 2005)

Celia Szusterman, “Argentina: the state we’re in” (October 2005)

Ivan Briscoe, “The Summit of the Americas’ free-trade farewell” (November 2005)

Arthur Ituassu, “One hour with George W Bush” (November 2005)

Sergio Ramirez, “Nicaragua’s hijacked democracy” (November 2005 )

Arthur Ituassu, “Farewell José, farewell 2005” (December 2005)



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Bachelet stands as candidate for Concertación , the centre-left coalition of Christian democrats, social democrats and socialists that has ruled Chile since Pinochet left power in 1990. Her main rivals are two candidates representing the right-wing parties forming the Alianza coalition: Joaquín Lavín and Sebastián Piñera.

Lavín, 52, is an economist and candidate of Unión Demócrata Independiente (Independent Democratic Union / UDI), a right-wing party created as Pinochet’s dictatorship was ending in order to represent the interests of the general’s most hardline supporters. Lavín himself, an economist, is close to the conservative Catholic sect Opus Dei.

Piñera, 56, is a multimillionaire businessman represents the Renovación Nacional (National Renewal / RN), a party also born under the wing of the military regime, but now seeking to capture the centre-right vote. Its more moderate position is characterised by analysts as the “civilised right”.

The two Alianza candidates aim to prevent Bachelet from getting the 50% of the votes that would allow her to win the presidency outright, forcing her to go into a second round against one of them. They claim to be using this first round as a primary to decide which of them has more support and a better chance against Bachelet. In reality, their Alianza is an uneasy one, and the campaign has being marked as much by their squabbles as by their bitter attacks on their socialist opponent.

A fourth candidate is Tomás Hirsch, 48, an engineer who heads a coalition of the extra-parliamentarian left, mainly communists and greens. Hirsch stood for the presidency in the 1999 campaign won by Ricardo Lagos, establishing his eccentric reputation by using his free election TV airtime to demonstrate how to make an omelette.

All the opinion polls – including those from think-tanks aligned with the right – place Bachelet well ahead, though probably short of the 50% she requires to win outright in the first round. The prestigious research centre CERC gives her just over 48%, with Lavín on 22%, Piñera 21% and Hirsch at almost 8%. In a potential second round on 15 January Bachelet would have little difficulty in defeating the conservative Lavín, but may have more of an uphill task if the other candidate is Piñera, who would try and capture the soft Christian-democratic vote. Yet at this stage, and barring a major political upset, there is little doubt that Bachelet will become Chile’s first female president.

Who is Michelle Bachelet?

Michelle Bachelet’s father was an air-force general who supported the elected president, Salvador Allende, who died in Pinochet’s military coup on 11 September 1973. He paid for his observance of the constitution by being tortured to death by his fellow officers. At that time, Michelle Bachelet was a third-year medical student and a member of the Socialist Party. Together with her mother, she was also arrested and tortured. After three weeks, they were released and allowed to travel abroad, ending up in Berlin where she continued her medical studies.

Bachelet returned to Chile in 1979 and graduated as a medical doctor, specialising in paediatrics. She was refused a job in the public-health system in 1982 because of “political considerations”, which led her to work with NGOs, helping the children of victims of military repression.

In the 1990s, after Chile had returned to democracy and Pinochet’s influence had declined, the army sought to re-establish its legitimacy by inviting the Socialist Party to send their experts on military affairs to join senior officers in taking the annual course at the National Academy of Strategic Studies. Bachelet took up the offer and surprised everyone by graduating at the top of her class, thus qualifying for a postgraduate scholarship at the Inter-American Defence College in Washington DC.

When Bachelet’s socialist colleague Ricardo Lagos won the presidency in January 2000, he appointed her health minister, in charge of the public-health system that had once blacklisted her. Her brief was to eliminate waiting-lists within three months and to restore confidence in a national health service that had been seriously undermined by privatisation. Her success guaranteed her promotion; but there was further surprise when President Lagos appointed her defence minister in 2002. Bachelet was the first woman in Latin America – and one of the very few in the world – to hold that portfolio.

There was some expectation that the armed forces would show reluctance to serve under a woman, and moreover one who had seen her parents tortured by the military and suffered the same fate herself. But a new high command, a new generation of senior officers, purged of human-rights violators, welcomed her appointment as part of a reconciliation with the families of officers killed by the Pinochet regime.

At the same time, conservative elements in Chilean society – which seventeen years of dictatorship had made even more patriarchal and conservative – continued to whisper criticisms about Bachelet’s private life, especially the fact that Bachelet had divorced the father of her two older children, and had later on had a daughter (now 12 years old) with a partner she didn’t marry. Yet that disapproval doesn’t seem to affect the support that Bachelet receives from across the electorate, particularly women.

A barrage of fire

Michelle Bachelet’s victory is not preordained. Her support has somewhat receded since its August 2005 figure of over 50%, partly because of an effective campaign by the hard left. Hirsch’s anti-establishment message appeals to young voters, and his support has increased from the 2% registered four months ago.

But the main damage to Bachelet’s position comes from the exorbitant campaign launched by Sebastián Piñera, owner of a huge fortune controlling the main national airline and one of the main TV channels, which has had an impact among male voters and the Catholic centre vote. Piñera’s media campaign – and to a lesser extent Lavín’s – have kept a constant barrage of fire on Bachelet, targeting her alleged indecisiveness and deficiencies of intellect. Piñera has reinforced the charges with patronising comments about Bachelet’s charming, simpatico personality, implying that this does not amount to a sufficient qualification for a president.

Despite this highly personalised campaign against a woman who has successfully held two challenging ministerial portfolios, Bachelet retains the lead and still seems the most likely winner. The parliamentary election taking place in parallel with the presidential one looks even better for the ruling Concertación coalition; its forecast result of over 50% should give Bachelet a clear majority in congress to work with.

Her main risk could be a second round against Piñera after a relatively poor showing for the Christian Democrats in the parliamentary polls, as that could lead some disappointed Catholic voters to consider supporting the centre-right candidate. That would be balanced by the hard left having no choice but to support Bachelet; though any overt attempt she made to court the left would make her lose others in the centre, scared by the prospect of a socialist president indebted to the communists. In short, she faces a difficult balancing act.

The emergence of Michelle Bachelet as possible president of Chile, Latin America’s model of economic success and political stability, is not a unique phenomenon in the region. Chile’s northern neighbour, Peru, faces a presidential election in April 2006 that may become a confrontation between two female candidates: the lawyer and Christian Democratic opposition candidate Lourdes Flores versus businesswoman Jeanette Enmanuel of the ruling Peru Posible party.

Across the Andes, in Argentina, Cristina Fernández, a leftwing Peronist senator and wife of President Néstor Kirchner, has become the most popular politician in the country, to the point of being named Reina Cristina in the local press. Fernández shares a similar political background with Bachelet, and they are close friends. She was due to appear as a star guest at Bachelet’s final campaign rally in Santiago (now cancelled following a road accident which killed five of Bachelet's young supporters, including members of the Saiko rock band). A tragic prelude to the poll, but this rise of regional womanpower may signal the future of Latin American politics.

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