Leftist Bachelet Wins Chile’s Election But Faces Runoff

The former president promises to undertake ambitious education and tax reforms when she returns to power next year.

President Sebastián Piñera of Chile meets his predecessor, Michelle Bachelet, August 19, 2010
President Sebastián Piñera of Chile meets his predecessor, Michelle Bachelet, August 19, 2010 (Gobierno de Chile)

Chile’s former president and social democrat leader Michelle Bachelet emerged as the clear winner from a presidential election in the Latin American country on Sunday but will have to beat her conservative challenger Evelyn Matthei in a runoff next month before taking office.

Bachelet, who was the clear frontrunner going into the first round, won just over 46 percent support, less than needed to stave off a second round. Matthei, the candidate for incumbent president Sebastián Piñera’s right-wing coalition, got a quarter of the votes.

The woman who previously led the world’s top copper exporting country between 2006 and 2010 promises to undertake an ambitious education and tax reform program next year to reduce the inequalities that the left says have gone unaddressed through Piñera’s boom years.

The billionaire was Chile’s first right-wing president in two decades when he took power in 2010 and pursued a liberal economic program, as a result of which inflation and unemployment both dropped significantly. Growth averaged 5.8 percent during his administration but Chile’s income distribution remained the most unequal in the developed world.

Bachelet proposes to raise the corporate tax from 20 to 25 percent — it was raised last year from 18.5 percent — and double a stamp tax on borrowing operations to .8 percent, largely to finance free college education.

Early results from congressional elections on Sunday night showed Bachelet’s bloc on track to secure the legislative majority needed to carry out those reforms.

During her last four years in power, the former doctor and socialist activist 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, Bachelet 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.

Bachelet, 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 supports legal abortion when a mother’s life is in danger as well as gay marriage. Both could irk voters in a country that is 70 percent Roman Catholic although polls suggest a majority now supports equal rights for gay couples.

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