Chile after Piñera: What’s in store for Bachelet (Reprise)?
November 13, 2013
This Sunday (November 17), Chileans will vote in the first round of the country’s presidential elections. And for the first time, their votes will be voluntary—until now, every registered voter was required to vote or risk facing hefty fines.
Under the old system, electoral results were easier to predict. But even with the increased uncertainty in this year’s electoral forecasts, many are already declaring center-left candidate (and former president) Michelle Bachelet the next president of Chile.
Unlike the United States, Chile uses a two-round, or run-off, voting system—so even a likely winner need not win a majority of the country’s support in the first round. Although many Chileans believe Bachelet may pull off a first-round victory, she would have to garner at least 50% of the popular vote to do so. And should elections move to a second round, Bachelet will almost certainly emerge victorious.
But counting on a second round on December 15, Evelyn Matthei, from the conservative Alliance for Chile, Franco Parisi, an independent, and Marco Enriquez Ominami, or “MEO” from the Progressive Party, each need to make a strong showing this Sunday should there be a second round. And should anyone but Matthei go on to the second round, it would demonstrate the decline of the country’s conservative movement and the population’s desire for change following President Sebastian Piñera’s center-right administration.
Parisi, for his part, is looking to capitalize on Chileans’ disillusionment with politics to divert enough votes away from Bachelet to revert to a second round to begin with. MEO is the only serious left-of-center alternative to Bachelet. As a result of his solid support, he inherits the mantle of leader of the “new left.” And, if he does not force a second round in the current election, MEO is likely to be a serious contender in future presidential elections.
But regardless of how the several other candidates fare, Bachelet has maintained a considerable and consistent lead in the lead-up to the elections, and she will, in all likelihood, emerge as the victor on Sunday.
So, what will another Bachelet presidency mean for Chile, both domestically and internationally?
Q1: Where does Chile stand as Piñera leaves office?
A1: Piñera’s presidency was largely characterized by a set of four developments and events: the 2010 earthquake, the trapping and rescue of miners that same year, the country’s robust economic growth, and the widespread student protests that have persisted throughout his presidency.
The massive earthquake, which struck Chile just two weeks before Piñera took office, initially provided the new president with an opportunity to demonstrate his effective leadership, with many praising his decisive handling of the crisis. And, though lagging reconstruction efforts eventually took a toll on his approval ratings, the administration responded by speeding up the process and working tirelessly to repair the damage done.
The mining crisis—in which 33 Chilean miners found themselves trapped underground when the mine they were working in collapsed—garnered massive international attention. And when the rescue efforts proved successful, Piñera’s approval ratings increased to an all-time high of 63 percent.
But this positive sentiment, even when coupled with the country’s average annual growth rate of 5.5 percent and persistently low unemployment, have not been enough to counter the combined effects of social movements, protests, and the missed opportunities that have plagued Piñera’s presidency.
The protests began as a push for education reform, but have come to encompass constitutional and energy reform, as well as a variety of social issues. Some have, as a result, called Chile a “victim of its own success,” as the government’s ability to provide social services has grown at a much slower rate than the country’s economy. But regardless of the rationale, one thing is clear: Chile is going through a social and economic transition, and Chileans want change.
Q2: What would Chile’s domestic policy look like under Bachelet?
A2: Should Bachelet reassume the presidency, her domestic policy platform will, in all likelihood, focus on appeasing the protestors and addressing their demands.
Throughout her campaign, Bachelet has pledged to reduce Chile’s economic and social inequality—among the primary gripes of the ongoing protest movement. Among her primary goals are taxation, education, and constitutional reform.
The tax reform is largely intended as a source of funding for her more sweeping education reform proposal, which would include offering free higher education to students unable to afford it, extending not-for-profit rules currently in place for private universities to subsidized private primary and secondary institutions, and expanding school budgets to improve the quality of public education.
Bachelet’s intended constitutional reforms hope to replace the document that has been in place since the Pinochet era, with a particular focus on reforming the electoral system to allow for better representativeness in Congress. This would have to be accompanied by some sort of mechanism to ensure governability through the formation of legislative coalitions.
Her prospects for sweeping constitutional change, which would require a majority in both legislative chambers, are not too bright, however, since the current electoral system tends to offer a disproportionate number of seats to the coalition that comes in second—in this case, probably the parties of the center-right. The inherent difficulty in passing constitutional change through congress has increased pressure to organize a constituent assembly. A protest movement has emerged which is encouraging voters to mark their election ballots with the letters AC (Asamblea Constituyente), to pressure authorities to take this route.
Q3: How would Bachelet likely change Chile’s position in global politics?
A3: Though her charisma and popularity in Chile are “larger than life,” it’s worth remembering that Bachelet’s ability to conduct an active and directed foreign policy may well be hampered by the many challenges her administration will face at home. A Bachelet presidency would likely maintain Chile’s already-strong presence in international institutions, regional integration movements, and free trade agreements.
According to Bachelet’s election platform, her administration would work to achieve greater regional unity, to secure a favorable position for Chile in emerging trade agreements in the region and beyond, and to solidify Chile’s place as a leader in human rights and equality through its membership in international organizations.
Though Bachelet has expressed some doubts about the potential effects of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on Chile’s standing in global markets, her support for the Pacific Alliance (and similar integration efforts) remains high. And though her platform fails to mention Bolivia and Peru, the neighbors that have traditionally been engaged in border conflicts with Chile, her support for the Pacific Alliance bodes well for the Chile-Peru bilateral relationship.
The Bachelet government will likely inherit the responsibility of implementing whatever International Court of Justice (ICJ) decisions emerge from The Hague regarding border disputes with Peru and Bolivia—a development which could result in some tensions with these neighboring countries.
That said, other candidates have been more explicit in their positions on these issues. MEO, for one, has expressed a willingness to work with Bolivia on the long-controversial issue of the land-locked country’s access to the Pacific Ocean, as well as on energy and natural resource exchange.
Like MEO, Bachelet has focused on diversifying Chile’s energy use and securing additional sources. She would likely push her land-use plan, which would incentivize the development of energy projects within Chile by ensuring that they would be less hampered by opposition from environmental and social groups.
A Bachelet presidency would also likely also seek to maintain Chile’s relations with Asia—both through existing agreements like the Pacific Alliance and through independent efforts.
Conclusion: Chile’s student protest movement has dominated the country’s domestic politics for the past two years. And while that same movement and the in-fighting within the right may prove partly responsible for bringing Bachelet back to the presidency, public opinion pose serious challenges for her administration, as well.
In short, with their support comes a set of sky-high expectations. And it will be up to Bachelet alone to manage—and, if she can, to meet—those expectations.
Implementing all of her intended reforms will be no easy task. Even should she do just that, Bachelet will still face the fact that there is no quick-fix to appease the growing grievances of the vocal Chilean population, especially the country’s millennial generation.
In this context, it is hard to imagine a Chile that implements an aggressive foreign policy—Bachelet’s focus will necessarily be domestic. Still, Chile’s energy needs and dependence on global markets would make too dramatic a turn inward unwise.
Though the elections have presented few challenges for Bachelet, the same cannot be expected of her presidency. She will, without a doubt, face the task of striking a delicate balance—with the expectations and demands of the Chilean people on one side, and Chile’s substantial international obligations on the other.
What remains to be seen is if she will rise to the challenge.
Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Laura Solano, intern scholar, and Jillian Rafferty, staff assistant, both with the CSIS Americas Program, provided research assistance.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.