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Elections in Chile: a decisive victory for Bachelet, but an uncertain future

Written by Joseph Wales


Michelle Bachelet secured the Chilean presidency on Sunday following run-off elections, a watershed moment in the history of Chile. Promising major economic and political reforms, Bachelet’s centre-left Nueva Mayoría coalition secured majorities in both houses of the legislature last November. Chileans seem ready to move on from the legacies of the Pinochet era to face new challenges. However, the country’s constitution and political system are not moving at the same pace – creating a future fraught with uncertainty.

Chile: a model of development progress?

Chile’s development
is now on a par with Eastern Europe, and it achieved high-income country status earlier this year after over two decades of strong and consistent economic growth. This progress has a dark side, however: high and persistent inequality. The link between Chileans’ socio-economic background, and how well they do in school is stronger than in any other OECD nation, and income inequality is only just below that of Brazil.

Chile’s successes have been built on a strong foundation of political stability: two decades of rule by the centre-left Concertación coalition but also the restraining influence of Chile’s constitution and electoral system. These stack the deck against large legislative majorities by boosting the representation of the opposition and prevent radical policy shifts by requiring supermajorities to pass legislation in many areas. Put in place during the Pinochet era, and amended only partially during Chile’s carefully negotiated transition to democracy, this system has given the Chilean right wing significant power to block reforms, but also resulted in a politics of negotiation, consensus building and compromise due to its combination with a deep desire to avoid the instability of social conflict. Consequently, changes in many policy areas have been gradual but effective and entrenched, while in others action has proven impossible.

Increasing stresses mean déjà vu for Bachelet

It looks like the frustrations of Bachelet’s first term in office (2006-2010) are being repeated: two of her key pledges – electoral reform and the creation of free university education – are both highly popular amongst the public and impossible for her to pass without opposition support. In the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, her coalition fell short of the 57% majority required for new education legislation, let alone the 60% needed for electoral reform and the 67% needed for constitutional change. However this time she has a stronger endorsement from the Chilean people– her current 62% share of votes is the largest majority of the post-Pinochet period, albeit on a lower turnout linked to the removal of compulsory voting.

Student protests: is the political system is moving too slowly?

The need for consensus in Congress must be balanced with growing demands for more radical reform led by Chile’s increasingly strong social movements, chief among them the students.

Major student protests aimed at ending profit-making education institutions and providing free higher education to all that began in Bachelet’s first term have since grown and widened to develop a broad critique of Chile’s social structure that has resonated beyond the young.

During the 2013 election Bachelet aligned herself with the student movement by making education the banner issue for her campaign, and four of the five student movement leaders who contested legislative elections were elected for a variety of parties, two inside Bachelet’s coalition and two outside. This cooperation does not mean that the movement is loyal to Bachelet or will be patient. The latest campaign saw a series of major demonstrations, including clashes with the police, student occupation of voting booths and, on the night of the first round of the presidential election, a student invasion of Bachelet’s own party headquarters.

The next generation of reforms

This growing radicalism is sign of a generational shift. Those with no memories of the Pinochet era are increasingly impatient for change, unafraid of radical reform and unwilling to compromise. Interviews with the current heads of the student unions movement suggest they have no confidence in Congress and believe that change can only be forced in the streets. Their elected representatives, who may be crucial to passing reform legislation, have been labelled as radical and absolutist.

The challenge for Bachelet, and for Chile, is whether this new movement can be successfully integrated into the existing social contract, which, for all its flaws, has provided stability and growth for the last two decades; or whether the growing radicalisation and inability to compromise will undermine the ambitious reforms that the Chilean people demand.