Can Bachelet lead Chile to change?
November 14th, 2013
10:42 AM ET

Can Bachelet lead Chile to change?

By Matt Browne and Dan Restrepo, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Dan Restrepo is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former advisor to President Barack Obama on Latin America. Matt Browne heads American Progress’s Global Progress project and is a former advisor to Tony Blair. The views expressed are their own.

Four decades since the military coup that brought Chile a dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet, Chile stands poised to enter a new chapter in its history. But obstacles from its past still stand in the way.

On Sunday, the daughters of two generals, friends who found themselves on opposing sides of the coup, will compete for the presidency. Michelle Bachelet, a former president and the daughter of General Alberto Bachelet, who opposed the coup, is running against Evelyn Matthei, the daughter of General Fernando Matthei, who supported the coup and presided over the prison that tortured and killed Bachelet’s father.

Is the scene set for a dramatic show down?

Actually, not really. When Bachelet left office five years ago, she did so with the highest approval ratings of any Chilean politician in history, above 85 percent. Only the Chilean constitution, which prevents sitting presidents from standing for re-election for a consecutive term, removed her from office. Today, polls suggest that almost half the population will vote for Bachelet in the first round. Matthei garners a mere 14 percent of the vote with the remainder being split by smaller independent candidates.

Depending on turn-out – this is the first election without compulsory voting – Bachelet may well be elected without a second round run-off.

So what are the big issues at stake Sunday? First, whether Bachelet’s coalition, Nueva Mayoria, can win a large enough majority in the Senate for her to be able to push through a reform agenda; and second – and related – whether she will be able to channel the energy of recent civil unrest into a sustainable movement for change.

Chile’s electoral system, drawn by Pinochet in 1980, casts a long shadow.  The system is designed to produce stalemate. It pushes parties into coalitions from the center to the left, and from the center to the right, while simultaneously skewing each coalition’s representation. Unless one side wins over two-thirds of the vote in a particular constituency, each takes one of the two seats available.

Without a large majority, many Chileans fear Bachelet’s new government will be paralyzed. To enact political reform, constitutional reform, and much-needed education reform, she will need a two-thirds majority in the Congress and Senate. Without such margins, there’s a very real possibility a reform agenda will be blocked or slowed by an "old-school" Congress and Senate.

Confronted by these challenges, Bachelet has used her campaign to begin to build a credible new politics in Chile, one that embodies a new approach to campaigning and governing. To overcome skepticism in the ability of Chile’s politics to match the country’s challenges, Bachelet began early in her campaign to shape a narrative that is about a permanent movement, headed by, but not reducible to, her leadership.

Mobilizing social media and new online organizing techniques, a story is developing that underscores that real change requires everyday Chileans to be mobilized and engaged on election day and beyond to pressure and push leaders and politicians while in government too.

During the primary vote earlier this year, indications were positive. Nueva Mayoria’s voters turned out in much larger numbers than their competitors on the right, and Bachelet won more than 70 percent of votes cast. A similar performance this weekend, and she may well be on the road to building a credible movement for change.

The real test, however, will be whether a President-elect Bachelet can maintain the campaigns momentum and channel its energy heading into office.

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Topics: Latin America

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soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. George patton

    Let's all hope that Michelle Bachelet gets reelected. Like the U.S., Chile has been pulled down by right-wing fanatics, especially by the horrific Augusto Pinochet and his brutal regime(1973-1990). The only thing that kept it from becoming a complete disaster was the simple fact that he left many of the programs initiated by the former Pres. Salvador Allende in place!

    November 14, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
    • jkkkw

      Wow you're an idiot it's because of those right-wing fanatics that Chile is what it is today. Without Pinochet Chile would have been Cuba or Venezuela.

      November 20, 2013 at 12:42 am |
      • Brian

        Allende was far more of a Franklin Delano Roosevelt type Social-Democrat than a Fidel Castro or Hugo Chavez type left-wing strongman. Remember that the winner gets to right history so naturally Pinochet and his followers cast him as a radical communist when he was in fact no such thing.

        November 26, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
      • Niclas

        Totally agree with you jkkkw.

        Bachelet is yet another Chavez and Castro wannabe. Chile is a successful country today thanks to Pinochet. His regime wasn't perfect and there were many abuses but those abuses pale in comparison to the thugs of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. Michele Bachelet is simply another leftist thug wannabe.

        November 26, 2013 at 7:47 pm |
  2. Felix Unger

    If Michelle Bachelet does get reelected, let's hope that the cursed C.I.A. doesn't arrange another one of those right-wing coup d'etats like the tragic one in Chile back in 1973! Ironically, the date of that tragedy dates from Sept. 11, 1973 exactly 28 years before 9/11! Worst of all, Augusto Pinochet was only too successful in escaping retribution in England largely through the efforts of Margaret Thatcher and her cohorts, quite possibly through bribery!

    November 15, 2013 at 8:39 am |
  3. Miguel Angel

    Chilean people react to her name with hate or love, and the people who think she is not the solutionis to our problems hits easily the 50%
    I think a second round won't be so optimistic for her.

    November 15, 2013 at 11:12 am |
  4. j. von hettlingen

    In a region where politics is still very much a man's game, it's remarkable that both frontrunners of the presidential election in Chile are women. What's more extraordinary is the relationship between the two women.
    Michelle Bachelet and Evelyn Matthei went to the same primary school and played together as kids. Their fathers were close friends and served together in the Chilean air force until the military coup of 1973 tore them apart, with tragic consequences. At times, the history of the two women and their fathers is like something out of a Latin American soap opera or an epic realist novel.

    November 17, 2013 at 11:42 am |
    • George patton

      Thank you, j. von hettlingen. That was very enlightening. Now let's all hope and pray that there never be a repeat performance of the horribly tragic 1973 coup and the C.I.A. keeps it's filthy nose out of Chilean politics!!!

      November 17, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
      • Niclas

        George Patton it's disgraceful you're using that name which I know isn't yours. Patton would've kicked you in the balls for being a communist sympathizer and an idiot (two terms that really are synonymous)- I know you want to keep the CIA out so you can let your friends at KGB, oh sorry, FSB take care if it instead...
        The coup in '73 was the best thing that ever happened to Chile, unfortunately they missed the likes of you...

        November 26, 2013 at 7:53 pm |
  5. Alvaro Covarrubias

    Most of us Chileans don't want radical change a-la-Venezuela. We want to live in peace, with our families and prosper in our corner of the world. Truth is, we have the lowest interest in politics and lowest amount of active voters in the OECD ... perhaps that has preserved us from leftist extremists and third world populism.

    November 18, 2013 at 1:08 am |
  6. Joe McDraken

    i forgot to say something about Bachelet. She's uncapable to lead Chile. without offense, she's useless, she cannot stand the pressure and she's not good taking choices. the proof is her last government and the ONEMI'S 27/F videos... check it out and ask yourselves if she can lead Chile.

    She's the puppet who everyones wants to play.

    November 25, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
  7. Niclas

    Bachelet is another socialist who will plunder Chile.

    November 26, 2013 at 7:44 pm |

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