Leftist Bachelet Likely to Reclaim Chile’s Presidency

Chile’s former president promises to tackle economic inequalities the liberal conservatives failed to address.

Chilean president Michelle Bachelet visits Guatemala, February 21, 2010
Chilean president Michelle Bachelet visits Guatemala, February 21, 2010 (Gobierno de Guatemala/Luis Echeverría)

Chile’s former president and social democrat leader Michelle Bachelet is likely to return to office in November when she would succeed the incumbent, former businessman Sebastián Piñera, who is legally barred from seeking a second consecutive term.

Bachelet won the overwhelming backing of Chile’s left-wing parties last week in a primary election. Her opponent, the current economy minister Pablo Longueira, eked out a 51.4 percent victory in his primary, by contrast.

A survey conducted late last year put Bachelet’s popularity near 75 percent while only 21 percent of Chileans said they supported Longueira. His numbers may yet improve while Bachelet will also have to contest with independent, far-left candidates. But absent a major upset, her return to power seems all but certain.

As president between 2006 and 2010, Bachelet added a minimum pension for poor Chileans to the nation’s otherwise privately funded retirement system that was introduced under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in the 1980s. She also raised the minimum wage but resisted calls from her own coalition to spend surplus revenue on income redistribution schemes. Instead, the government set up a sovereign wealth fund that accumulates fiscal surpluses which were first used in 2009 to finance economic stimulus programs when the economy contracted .9 percent as a result of the global financial crisis.

Throughout Bachelet’s presidency, Chile’s growth averaged 3.3 percent. She left office with an 84 percent approval rating.

Piñera broke twenty years of uninterrupted left-wing rule when he took power in 2010 and pursued more liberal economic policies. Growth averaged 5.8 percent during his administration while inflation and unemployment fell. The distribution of income in Chile, however, is the most unequal in the developed world.

Longueira would continue Piñera’s policy while Bachelet has promised to tackle the Latin American nation’s inequalities by raising the corporate tax from 20 to 25 percent — it was raised last year from 18.5 percent — and doubling a stamp tax on borrowing operations to .8 percent, largely to finance free college education. Longueira opposes this but would finance schooling for poor students.

The former president, who became the first director of UN Women when it was founded in 2011, is also expected to take a more liberal approach to social issues. She says she wants to decriminalize abortion under certain conditions, for instance when the mother’s life is in danger, and legalize gay marriage. Both might irk voters in a country that is 70 percent Roman Catholic although polls suggest a majority now supports equal rights for gay couples. Piñera’s liberals favor civil unions.

If she wins the presidential election, Bachelet must hope that her allies do well in parliamentary elections that are due to take place on the same day. During much of her first administration, the left did not command a majority in Congress while Piñera currently lacks one in the Senate.

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