The 2013 Chilean Elections: Making History Again?on 17 January 2014
By Susan Francescet and Gwynn Thomas
On December 15th, 2013 Michelle Bachelet was re-elected as Chile’s president with just over 62% of the vote. Her unsurprising victory continued her tendency to make history. In 2006, Bachelet became Chile's first female president. She left office four years later with an approval rating of 84%. Constitutionally prevented from seeking a second consecutive term, she returned as a candidate in 2013 to become the first former president to win another election since the transition to democracy in 1990.
The central question for Bachelet’s second term is how much she can change Chile's political and economic systems. After 34 years under a constitution crafted under military rule and designed to maintain the political power of the right and an economic system geared towards free markets and liberalised trade, many Chileans are now demanding change. Although not wishing for revolutionary change, they want more than the economic growth and social inclusion promised by previous democratic governments. Bachelet's electoral platform promoted constitutional, educational, and financial reforms designed to address Chile's persistent inequality. If implemented, she will make history once again, this time as the post-dictatorship president that oversaw the most ambitious and extensive promotion of equality and social justice.
To succeed, Bachelet must maintain the support of both the Chilean people and her own fractious coalition, the Nueva Mayoría. Composed of the four political parties of the Concertación (the centre-left coalition that governed Chile from 1990–2010), as well as three additional left political parties, including the Communists, the Nueva Mayoría holds majorities in both houses of congress. Additionally, a newly-empowered citizenry will watch this coalition closely. Led by a new generation that came of age under democracy and not dictatorship, Chileans have taken to the streets in mass protests, demanding much more of political leaders.
Balancing the demands of her coalition and the public proved challenging during Bachelet’s first presidency. On the one hand, she was adroit at garnering public support. Indeed, her win in 2006 owed to her overwhelming popularity with ordinary Chileans rather than Concertación elites. After 16 years in power, the Concertación was perceived as elitist, corrupt, and out of touch, while Bachelet was seen as an outsider with an open and engaged leadership style. Her campaign resonated with voters frustrated by the lack of turnover in the elite and the growing insularity of the Concertación. As a presidential candidate, she highlighted the change she represented: she would be the first woman in the presidency and would bring many more new faces to government, including Chile's first gender parity cabinet. She also promised more citizen participation in government, a goal never achieved. She gained further support by promising to continue the Concertación's efforts to improve conditions for lower-income Chileans. Her most popular policies included pension reform, early childhood development, and state-funded crèches that guaranteed spaces to women in the poorest two-fifths of the population. Although her first year was marred by public anger at the bungled implementation of a new transit system in the capital city, Santiago, and secondary students occupying schools to protest the poor quality of public education, Bachelet enjoyed high approval throughout much of her first term.
Yet she proved less adroit at navigating the internal politics of the Concertación. Hampered by being outside of the coalition’s core elite, her leadership was publicly questioned by members of her own coalition. Moreover, the coalition faced an internal crisis due to the lack of political and generational renewal. This led to the loss of the coalition’s legislative majority early in Bachelet's presidency when a group of deputies split from the coalition. No clear successor emerged and her coalition chose another former president, Eduardo Frei, as its 2009 presidential candidate. Frei’s campaign failed to inspire Chileans, and after nearly 20 years in office, the Concertación lost power to the conservative Alianza coalition and President Sebastián Piñera.
In her second term, Bachelet needs all of the skills learned from her first presidency to balance the public’s demands with those of her coalition. This time, Chileans want real change, not simply new faces. Under Piñera's presidency, frustration over inequality increased despite economic growth. Protests by university students highlighted this: Noting the connection between money and quality of education, the students demanded that the state provide free, quality education to all Chileans as a right. Student protests grew to include workers and middle-class Chileans who sympathised with underlying concerns about the lack of opportunities for upward mobility. By August 2011, Santiago was paralysed by more than 200,000 protesters in the streets.
Bachelet responded with promises of fundamental reforms to education, taxes and the constitution. To finance promises of free education and other expansions of Chile's welfare state, Bachelet proposes to close tax loopholes and gradually increase the corporate tax rate to 25%. Notably, she also spoke to groups whose exclusion is not based on socio-economic status: she promised to submit a bill to congress to legalise same-sex marriage and to liberalise Chile’s draconian abortion law. She has also committed to gender parity in executive appointments.
The most dramatic change on the agenda is constitutional reform. Although most of the anti-democratic features of the constitution were eliminated in 2005, some, like the binomial majoritarian electoral system, remain. Intended to reduce the number of parties and moderate the left, Chile’s electoral rules are criticised for over-representing the right and compelling centre and left parties to compete as a coalition. It also made it near impossible for the smaller left parties to win any seats.
Promises of fundamental change have raised expectations among Chileans. But many of the promised reforms face an uphill battle in congress, where, despite the Nueva Mayoría’s legislative majority, they lack the supermajorities needed to pass education and constitutional reforms. Hence, Bachelet must secure support from some opposition members while maintaining full support from her coalition. This will require careful and astute political bargaining.
The president’s ability to meet popular expectations will depend on her skill in managing the Nueva Mayoría, a larger, more ideologically diverse and complicated political coalition than the Concertación. For example, she needs to balance the preferences of the centrist and more socially conservative Christian Democrats with those of the Communists. In addition, four high-profile leaders of the student movement were elected to congress (two as part of Bachelet’s coalition, and two as affiliated independents). These leaders face the challenge of maintaining credibility among their supporters: their decision to enter formal politics must be perceived as paying off with concrete legislative outcomes. If Bachelet does not gain sufficient support for her education initiatives, then student leaders might abandon the coalition and once again encourage street protests.
Thus, the prospects for meaningful political and economic changes in Bachelet's second presidency depend on her leadership in managing both the internal politics of her coalition and the expectations of the citizenry. She must adroitly use her public support as leverage in the coming legislative fights while also maintaining support within the coalition. If she creates a virtuous circle between the two, Bachelet will make history again, this time as the president who successfully charted a path to a more equal Chile.
Susan Franceschet is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Calgary. She recently published ‘Sustaining Gendered Practices? Power, Parties, and Elite Political Networks in Argentina,’ co-authored with Jennifer M. Piscopo, in Comparative Political Studies. Gwynn Thomas is an Associate Professor of Global Gender Studies at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. Her book, Contesting Legitimacy in Chile: Familial Ideals, Citizenship, and Political Struggle, 1970-1990, was published by The Penn State University Press.
Image: The Santiago Times CC BY