Michelle Bachelet's triumph

Justin Vogler
16 January 2006

Michelle Bachelet, the 54-year-old paediatrician who once described herself as incarnating “all the capital sins: socialist, my father’s daughter, divorced and an agnostic”, is set to become Chile’s first woman president after winning 53.45% of the vote in the 15 January run-off election.

Votes are counted quickly and transparently in Chile. When Bachelet’s victory was confirmed at 6.30pm on Sunday, all over Chile her supporters poured onto streets and plazas to celebrate. Improvised motor cavalcades formed with flags flowing from car windows and horns blasting. Thousands of women donned presidential ribbons to mark their collective victory. By 7.00pm, Bachelet’s contender, billionaire businessman Sebastian Piñera, had graciously conceded defeat.

From an improvised stage in Santiago’s wide central avenue, the president-elect addressed a joyous crowd. “Who would have thought it?”, she roared. “Who would have thought it twenty, ten, five years ago that Chile would elect a woman president?” Choking back tears, Bachelet went on to promise a new style of politics. “More consensus orientated, more participative; I’ve been the citizen’s candidate and I will be the citizen’s president.”

Also on Chilean politics in openDemocracy:

Tom Burgis, “Arresting development in Chile” (June 2005)

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

Roberto Espíndola, “Michelle Bachelet: Chile’s next president? ” (December 2005)

Roberto Espíndola, “Chile’s new era” (January 2006)


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The second round was needed after Bachelet narrowly failed to win an outright majority in the first-round poll on 11 December. Bachelet received 46% of the vote after being hard-pressed by two strong opponents – the centre-right Sebastian Piñera and the conservative former Santiago mayor, Joaquín Lavín; the third-placed Lavín immediately pledged his support to Piñera for the January showdown.

Chile’s rightwing press tried desperately to portray the race as a close one. But with countless opinion polls confirming her commanding lead, few doubted that Bachelet – representing Concertación, the broad coalition of leftist parties and Christian democrats who have ruled Chile since Augusto Pinochet stood down in 1990 – would win.

Religion, money and gender

The election result owes something to an environment of political and economic stability. The Chilean economy grew by nearly 6% in 2005 and the outgoing president, Ricardo Lagos, enjoys popularity ratings of more than 60%. But there are deeper factors at work. The election reveals how far this once pious, conservative country has come. As Carolina Tohá, congresswoman and close Bachelet aide, told me: “Bachelet’s election is a manifestation of profound changes sweeping across Chilean society. It shows how Chile has been rapidly liberated from a huge amount of fear, trauma and hypocrisy in the last few years.”

Such value-shifts were played out in the campaign. In an appeal to the religious vote, Piñera had firmly opposed abortion and gay marriage and cast himself as a “Christian humanist”. Bachelet left religion to her Christian Democrat partners who skilfully sidestepped her agnosticism and identified her with progressive Christian values.

Piñera presented himself as a dynamic, can-do man. But his constant questioning of Bachelet’s capabilities left him open to charges of machismo. Furthermore, many Chileans are uneasy about his huge fortune. In a televised debate just ten days before the election, Piñera aroused suspicion by refusing to reveal how much he had spent on his campaign.

As the campaign progressed, Bachelet increasingly emphasised the theme of gender equality. She promised equal representation of men and women in her cabinet, and in the final televised debate called on people to vote for her as a woman:

“A president has to understand a country’s needs. I am a mother and a doctor; I know the needs of my family and those of my country. Together we restored democracy and now I invite you to help pass another milestone. Make history and choose Chile’s first woman president.”

Bachelet: from exile to stateswoman

Michelle Bachelet’s father was an air-force general, Alberto Bachelet, who served in Salvador Allende’s government and died under torture following the 1973 coup that brought Pinochet to power. Michelle and her mother were held at the notorious Villa Grimalde torture centre before being exiled, eventually reaching East Germany.

Michelle returned to Chile in 1979. After a rapid professional and political rise that included two years as health minister and a masters’ degree from the Inter-American Defense College in Washington, she became Latin America’s first woman defence minister in 2002. Her successful, reformist two-year term in the post made her favourite to win the presidency.

Isabel Allende – socialist congresswoman, daughter of Salvador Allende and cousin of the author of the same name – told me in a recent interview: “This was the first time in Chile that a presidential candidate has emerged by popular demand and not through negotiations within the political parties.”

The journey to La Moneda palace has not been smooth. The initial attacks on Bachelet as a Marxist proved counterproductive in a country long tired of ideological animosity, so the next tack was to portray her as a political lightweight. The Oxford-educated historian Alfredo Jocelyn-Holt called her “a populist product of media marketing”.

Carlos Huneeus from the Centro de Estudios de Realidad Contemporánea (Cerc), a Santiago-based think-tank and polling agency, rejects this assessment. “The media and the polls helped position her but didn’t create her”, he says; rather, they revealed Bachelet’s personal strength and political ability. Huneeus attributes the president-elect’s success to her being a socialist who has both tamed and wooed Chile’s authoritarian military.

Myrna Troncoso, president of the Agrupación de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos y Eject (Association of Relatives of Disappeared and Executed Political Detainees), pays tribute to Bachelet’s “stateswomanship”: “she left aside her personal feelings and worked with men who tortured her and her mother and murdered her father.”

Adios Pinochet

On the other side of Chile’s historic divide, many in the armed forces have a high regard for a woman who, as one middle ranking army officer told me, “speaks our language and understands our codes”. As the first socialist to embrace the military since the 1973 coup, Bachelet has become a symbol of national reconciliation. Many in the military have quietly welcomed Bachelet-style reinvention.

For sixteen years Chilean politics has been divided between those who voted on different sides in the 1989 plebiscite called by General Pinochet to endorse and extend his rule. Piñera’s eruption onto the scene as the right’s de facto leader has at last broken that mould. Crucially – unlike his conservative cohorts and past rightwing candidates – Piñera voted against Pinochet in 1989. Thus, from both sides the 2005-06 election is a milestone in the process of Chilean democratic consolidation.

The emergence of a democratic post-Pinochet Chilean right is the culmination of a long process that has progressively seen Pinochet discredited and sidelined. In 1997, when he retired as army commander-in-chief and awarded himself the position of life-senator, Pinochet was still a pivotal figure in Chilean politics. Isabel Allende says that two events outside Chile – Pinochet’s 500-day detention in London in 1998-2000, and the subsequent discovery of multimillion-dollar bank accounts in his name in the United States – have decimated the 90-year old ex-dictator’s public image and left his lawyers fighting off numerous lawsuits.

“There are people who justified the human-rights abuses saying it was necessary,” said Allende. “But robbery is a different matter. In the parliament you see long-term Pinochet supporters feeling very uncomfortable, they can’t justify it any longer.”

Michelle Bachelet has pledged to change the binominal (or first-two-past-the-post) electoral system that Pinochet bestowed on Chile’s infant democracy. This effectively guarantees the political right the same parliamentary representation as the Concertación with as little as 33% per cent of the vote; smaller parties, notably the communists, are denied any representation.

The right agreed to vote through a raft of constitutional reforms in 2005, eliminating the post of life-senator (also granted by Pinochet to other heads of the armed forces) and restoring civilian authority over the military. Introducing a system of proportional representation to replace the binominal system is widely regarded as the last step in Chile’s long transition to a fully entrenched democracy.

South America: the politics of inclusion

Marta Lagos, director of Mori Chile, sees a continent-wide pattern in Bachelet’s election; those long excluded from politics – for reasons of class, race or gender – are finally storming the governmental strongholds. Brazil’s Luis Ignácio Lula da Silva was a metal worker; the dark-skinned Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chávez the son of a village schoolteacher; the president-elect of Bolivia, Evo Morales, will be the first indigenous politician to reach the summit of power in the hemisphere since Mexico’s Benito Juárez in 1858.

The trend will surely continue. The Argentinean senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner may succeed her husband Néstor Kirchner as the next president. Peru’s election in April promises a runoff between the indigenous nationalist and Chávez protégé, Ollante Humala, and the conservative woman candidate, Lourdes Flores – alike testifying to the passing of an era in which South American politics was the exclusive domain of the white, male, middle classes.

Michelle Bachelet is not the first woman to become a head of state in the hemisphere. Argentina’s Isabel Perón took power after her husband fell ill in 1974 and, in 1997, Guyana’s Janet Jagan - widow of long-term president Cheddi Jagan – became the first South American woman elected to the presidency. But as Steve Anderson, director of the Santiago Times observes: “Bachelet is the first female president in South America to be elected strictly on her own merit and not as the wife of a ‘great man’.”

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