Only once in America’s 237 year history has a president been elected to serve non-consecutive terms. That president was Grover Cleveland, who served as our 22nd President from 1885-1889 and our 24th President from 1893-1897. While the event is uncommon here in the United States, it happened for the first time in Chile’s 23 year old democracy this Sunday when former president Michelle Bachelet won a presidential runoff against former childhood acquaintance and conservative rival, Evelyn Matthei.
Despite winning by a considerable margin, 62% to 38% (with Matthei conceding once 90% of the votes had been accounted for), Bachelet’s second term as president will be no easier than her first. This round of presidential voting showcased the lowest voter turn-out since the inception of Chile’s democracy in 1990, with only 41%, or 5.5 million, of the eligible electorate casting a vote. This number is especially troubling considering this was the first presidential vote following a mandate which increased the eligible voters in Chile from 8 million to 13.5 million citizens.
Patricio Navia, a Chilean political scientist at New York University, believes that Bachelet’s journey will be difficult despite the large win: “It’s the most decisive victory in eight decades, but the most important thing is that Bachelet got fewer votes than her four predecessors, including herself in 2006. There isn’t really a big confidence vote for the reforms some people want to implement.”
The reforms that Bachelet, a Socialist candidate who pulled votes from the Communist and Christian Democrats as well, wants to implement are those which run counter to the policies implemented during the Pinochet dictatorship: decreased income inequality, constitutional reforms, and an improved education system. These platform issues stem from the massive student-led protests from 2011-13, known as the Chilean Winter, in which students and others from academia protested against the abhorrent educational opportunities present in the current system and somewhat quietly protested the income inequality inherent in Chile.
In order to accomplish her goals, Bachelet plans to raise corporate taxes from 20% to 25%, a move which is sure to be questioned by those profiting from such low taxes. More radical moves such as this will hopefully convince Bachelet’s critics that she is more motivated to act and implement changes during this presidency than her last. While Bachelet left office with a 84% approval ratings, many Chileans believe that she achieved close to nothing during her previous 4 year stint.
Kenneth Bunker, a Chilean political scientist, has stated that Bachelet should be successful in enacting her proposed legislation this time around: “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.”
However, Bachelet will still face a plethora of issues. In her last term, Bachelet received heavy criticism for her failure to warn coastal residences of a potential tsunami following a devastating earthquake, leading to many more deaths. The aforementioned political scientist, Patricio Navia, also expressed concerns with Bachelet accomplishing her platform goals due to the economic situation in Chile: “Her biggest challenge will be to match expectations with reality. She campaigned that the country was going to continue growing at 6 percent a year and it’s barely going to grow at 3 percent a year. The expectations are much higher than what she’ll be able to deliver.” Navia also stated that “The slowing economy will put additional pressure on Bachelet. People are expecting subsidies and more government spending, but they might end up seeing higher unemployment.”
Regardless of how much she accomplished before or will accomplish now, Bachelet was unlikely to lose the election due to Chile’s tainted political past. Following the coup of Salvador Allende in 1973, Chile faced 17 years of oppression under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, an oppression which Bachelet experienced directly after being tortured and dealing with the death of her father due to their lack of support toward Pinochet. Chile somewhat pardoned their history with the election of a candidate from the right during the last president cycle, but the poorest showing for the conservative candidate since 1990 displayed the fact that Chile is unwilling to retrace that blighted history anymore in the near future.
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