Bachelet vows major reforms after return to power

Michelle Bachelet waves during a victory rally in Santiago on Sunday. Picture: AP
Michelle Bachelet waves during a victory rally in Santiago on Sunday. Picture: AP
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Michelle Bachelet promised major tax and education reforms to ease Chile’s social divisions after she was returned to power with a huge majority in the country’s presidential elections on Sunday.

Centre-left candidate Ms Bachelet won with about 62 per cent support, the highest share of votes for any presidential candidate since the country returned to holding democratic elections in 1989.

The landslide victory against Evelyn Matthei, the conservative candidate of the Alianza coalition, puts Ms Bachelet back in the Moneda presidential palace after a four-year gap and gives her a mandate to push for an education overhaul and the fiscal reforms to help pay for it.

Ms Bachelet ended her 2006-10 presidency with 84 per cent approval ratings despite failing to achieve any major changes. This time, Chilean leftists vow to hold her to her promises, which include a spending programme costing the equivalent of £9 billion to overhaul education, improve healthcare and reduce the vast gap between rich and poor.

Ms Bachelet said in 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?”

Chile is the world’s top copper exporter, and its fast-growing economy, low unemployment and stable democracy are the envy of Latin America. But the millions who have protested in the streets in recent years say more of that copper wealth should go to reduce income inequality and fix public schools.

Ms Bachelet’s 62 per cent of the vote easily defeated Ms Matthei, who got only 37 per cent in the worst performance by the right in two decades.

Ms Bachelet needs momentum to overcome a slowing economy and congressional opposition. The general election in November gave her centre-left coalition only a slim majority in both houses of parliament, and she will need the votes of centre-right lawmakers to accomplish some of her proposals under Chile’s complicated, multi-tiered congressional voting system.

For now, she has enough votes to pass tax increases and will probably get support for educational reform. Changing the Pinochet-era electoral system and constitution, however, require super-majorities.

Kenneth Bunker, a Chilean political scientist at the LSE, said: “She’ll achieve some things: The tax reform is in her pocket … I think student leaders who have been elected to Congress will sign off on educational reform. Bachelet’s expectations are high, but things will be achieved.”

Patricio Navia, a Chilean political scientist at New York University, sees a tough road for Ms Bachelet, who ran the United Nations’ women’s agency after leaving the presidency.

“Her biggest challenge will be to match expectations with reality,” he said. “She campaigned that the country was going to continue growing at 6 per cent a year and it’s barely going to grow at 3 per cent a year. The expectations are much higher than what she’ll be able to deliver.”

This was Chile’s first presidential election after voter registration became automatic, increasing the electorate from eight million to 13.5 million of the country’s nearly 17 million population. But voting became optional with the change, and only 5.5 million voted in the runoff – 41 per cent.

Mr Navia added: “Bachelet got fewer votes than her four predecessors, including herself in 2006. So the key here is that a majority of Chileans stayed at home, and there isn’t a big confidence vote for the reforms some people want to implement.”

Many Chileans complain that policies imposed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-90 dictatorship have kept wealth and power in few hands. Pinochet effectively ended land reform and kept the best educations for elites by ending central control and funding of public schools.