The Left Returns To Power In Chile


Last weekend Chile experienced a remarkable event. In a country with a poor record of gender equality, two women contested the run-off for the Chilean presidential election. Centre-left Michelle Bachelet, who won an expected landslide victory over her right-wing opponent Evelyn Matthei, was returned to power for a second stint as President – she previously governed from 2006-2010.

What was not expected was the low turnout in the country's first election with non-compulsory voting. 5.6 million ballots were cast, an estimated 41.5 per cent to 44.8 per cent of the eligible population. As the Chilean independent news website El put it, “it is a democracy of the few”.

Last weekend’s run-off followed the 17 November general election, when none of the record nine presidential candidates obtained the majority required by Chile’s presidential system.

The pool was narrowed down to Bachelet and Matthei. Coincidentally, the two are childhood friends, whose experience diverged after the 11 September 1973 coup by General Augusto Pinochet, that overthrew the democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende.

Bachelet’s father Alberto was a General loyal to Allende, which brought his arrest and death at the hands of the military junta.

Matthei’s father Fernando was also a General. He took a different path after the coup, and became part of Pinochet's regime, which ruled Chile until the end of the 1980s.

The election of Bachelet, 40 years after Pinochet's coup, marks the return to power of the centre-left. It also puts an end to the four-year government of the right-wing tycoon Sebastián Piñera a kind of Chilean Silvio Berlusconi. As I wrote in NM in 2010, Piñera's government was the first time since the military regime that the right was in power.

Piñera became an international name when 33 Chilean miners were hauled to the surface after 69 days trapped in a collapsed mine in 2010. He took the credit for the miners' rescue, but his brief celebrity never reached the polling booths. The beginning of the end for his right wing parenthesis began last year, when when the right lost some of its safest seats in the country's legislature.

Bachelet will be sworn in on 11 March next year. Her previous tenure as President was mediocre, she had few legislative achievements and dealt ineffectively with the 2010 earthquake and tsunami that devastated a large part of the centre and south of the country.

She relied instead on a populist approach, peppering her speech with colloquial Chilean Spanish and presenting a caring motherly figure. That may not be enough this time around. Since she lost power in 2010, Chileans have become deeply disaffected and radicalised by the so-called tareas pendientes (outstanding commitments).

Bachelet – who will lead the New Majority coalition that includes Christian Democrats and Communists – was spot on when, in her winning speech, she admitted that Chileans “have distrust and frustration with a state that doesn't protect them”.

Perhaps the massive political absenteeism that marked last weekend’s run off is a resounding reflection of the Chilean disenchantment with their political class. Traditionally Chileans have had a strong civic and political commitment, and heading to the polls has been deeply inscribed in the Chilean political conscience.

But steady disengagement with traditional politics has diverted the spirit once felt for the ballot box into street politics. Massive street mobilisations over the last few years are spearheaded by a wide, cross-factional group demanding an improvement to the appalling education system, better healthcare, the democratisation of an authoritarian constitution left in place by Pinochet, reforms to the taxation system, improvement of pensions, commitment to environmental protection and justice for the indigenous people whose struggle has been systematically criminalised.

The greatest demand of all is to close the abysmal gap in Chile’s income distribution, long regarded as a stain on Chilean society and an obstacle to a truly consolidated democracy. Chile might well be an example to follow for other Latin American countries, as an orderly economically sound society. But this is not the whole story. The promised trickle down never eventuated: according to a study by the University of Chile, the richest 1 per cent of the population concentrates 31 per cent of the wealth.

These are some of the outstanding and urgent tasks President Bachelet will have to honour in Chile’s new political paradigm, in the “democracy of the few”.

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