The election last month of Michelle Bachelet as president of Chile took place in what the local media described as a “tranquil” environment. Indeed, the atmosphere stood in sharp contrast to the turmoil surrounding the 1970 election of Socialist Salvador Allende (later overthrown in the 1973 coup) or the 1988 plebiscite that defeated General Augusto Pinochet in his bid to extend his authoritarian rule. Campaigning was strictly regulated. All electioneering was forbidden in the forty-eight hours before the vote, and the election was carried out efficiently, with a much higher turnout than in U.S. elections.

Bachelet, the candidate of the center-left political coalition known as the Concertación, received over 53 percent of the vote, 7 percent more than her opponent Sebastian Piñera, a self-made billionaire and a member of the center-right National Renovation Party. How did a single mother (and declared agnostic in a strongly Catholic country) who had never held elected office, become the first woman president in Latin America to be elected in her own right, and not because of her husband’s political success?

Bachelet is the daughter of Alberto Bachelet, a former general in the Chilean air force. She spent her early teenage years in Washington, D.C., where her father was assigned to the Chilean embassy. In the 1970s, General Bachelet worked closely with the Allende government, directing a program aimed at overcoming food shortages. Following the 1973 coup, Bachelet’s father was arrested and sent to prison, where he died of a heart attack induced by mistreatment. Later Bachelet and her mother were arrested, tortured, and forced into exile, first in Australia and later in East Germany. Bachelet returned to Chile in 1979, where she obtained a medical degree in pediatrics and public health.

She joined the Socialist Party in the 1970s, and over time she followed the party’s evolution from revolutionary Marxism to a more moderate social democratic position. In the 1980s, the Socialist Party worked with Chile’s centrist Christian Democrats against the Pinochet regime, and after Pinochet was defeated in the plebiscite of 1988, they helped establish the Concertación, an alliance of Christian Democrats, Socialists, and other parties that have governed Chile since 1990. Bachelet became politically prominent a few years ago when she was named health minister, and later minister of defense, by President Ricardo Lagos. Her qualification for the defense position was based not only on her family background, but also on her outstanding performance in the 1990s in advanced courses at the Chilean War College, and at the Inter-American Defense College in Washington, D.C.

As a minister in the Lagos administration, Bachelet became a popular public figure, receiving substantial media coverage for her work. Soon her name began to appear in polls as a possible presidential candidate. Over time, it became clear that she would be the Socialist Party candidate. Her humor, directness, practicality, and competence appealed to Chileans, who seemed tired of run-of-the-mill politicians. Her lead in the polls persuaded the Christian Democratic Party to withdraw its candidate-also a woman, Soledad Alvear, the former minister of foreign affairs.

The united front presented by the Socialists and the Christian Democrats contrasted with the division between the two parties on the right. The Independent Democratic Union (UDI) ran the former mayor of Santiago, Joaquín Lavín, who had nearly defeated Lagos in 1999-2000. Back then, Lavín garnered strong support, but in the interim he proved ineffective as mayor. His chances of winning in 2005-2006 were further reduced when the National Renovation Party (the country’s other conservative party) decided to run Piñera. In the first round of the election, Piñera edged out Lavín by a few percentage points, leading to the January runoff with Bachelet.

The continuing success and popularity of President Lagos, also a Socialist, contributed to Bachelet’s victory. Lagos enjoyed a 60- to 70-percent approval rating, based on major reforms he had carried out in expanding education, extending health services, reforming the judicial system, and sustaining Chilean economic prosperity. Especially in the period just before the January runoff, Lagos made no secret of his preference for Bachelet, leading her opponent to try (unsuccessfully) to make an issue of government involvement in the campaign.

There was little apparent difference between the programs of the two candidates. Both published detailed reform proposals. Both agreed that the private pension system set up by the Pinochet government (and praised by many who want to privatize Social Security in the United States) is in need of substantial modification, particularly to cover those who did not pay enough into the system to build an adequate pension. Piñera put more emphasis on the issues of crime and public safety and proposed a pension for housewives. Bachelet’s economic program, developed by a team of internationally known economists, included a government subsidy to encourage the hiring of young people, and the establishment of a nationwide daycare system.

Pinochet was hardly mentioned in the campaign. His remaining support in Chile has dwindled significantly since 2004 when it was discovered that he had concealed $27 million from arms sales in foreign bank accounts while he was commander in chief of the army. At the age of ninety, Pinochet is being sued for tax evasion and for human-rights violations, and earlier decisions that he was not competent to stand trial have been reversed. The courts have also effectively undercut Pinochet’s self-declared amnesty for human-rights crimes before 1978 by ruling that cases of persons missing since 1978 should be considered crimes of “aggravated kidnapping.”

Religion, specifically Catholicism, could have been a source of division between the Christian Democrats and the Socialists. A devout Catholic, Piñera tried, apparently without success, to persuade Christian Democrats to vote for him on religious grounds. The Catholic bishops, however, recognizing that there were strong Catholics on both sides (the Socialists issued a statement emphasizing the Catholic background of several of their senators), were careful to avoid any appearance of partisanship.

Bachelet also sidelined what could have been a “wedge issue” by pledging not to introduce legislation legalizing abortion or gay marriage during her term of office. (Illegal abortions are common in Chile, but except for a few women’s organizations, no groups have argued for legalizing the procedure.) Bachelet also emphasized the agreement between religious and lay humanists on issues of poverty and social justice.

In the 1999-2000 elections, the press made much of the contrast between Joaquín Lavín, a member of the lay Catholic group Opus Dei, and Lagos, an agnostic. But Lagos’s relationship with the church has been mostly a friendly one. Except for some Christian Democratic opposition to the divorce law adopted in 2004, there have not been religiously-based differences between the Christian Democrats and the Socialists. And Bachelet’s earlier checkered love life-she has three children by two men, one of whom was not her husband-seems not to have hurt her with voters.

One of the first issues to be addressed by the new government will likely be electoral reform. Chile’s current electoral system, providing for the election of two representatives in each district, was created before Pinochet left office in order to benefit the Right and exclude the Communists. Most of the undemocratic features of the constitution promulgated by Pinochet in 1980 have been repealed, but it has been more difficult to change the voting system, because incumbents are reluctant to change rules from which they have benefited. It can also be argued that the present system has given Chile political stability, since it has resulted in what amounts to a two-party system.

President-elect Bachelet has promised a program of “continuity and change.” Her government will be committed to the goals of the Left: equality, democracy, and social justice, while recognizing (as some of Chile’s continental neighbors committed to a more populist leftism do not) that insertion into the global economy and encouragement of foreign investment provide the means to finance social legislation. Those who are concerned about the recent success of the Left in Latin America may look to Chile for an example of a center-left government that successfully combines political democracy, economic growth, and social progress: the poverty rate has been reduced from 40 percent in 1990 to 18 percent today. Chile could be a model for Latin America and the developing world.

Paul E. Sigmund is professor of politics emeritus at Princeton University. He has published two books and many articles on Chilean politics.

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Published in the 2006-02-10 issue: View Contents
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