Resignations Cloud Bachelet’s Return to Chile’s Presidency

Despite a hectic start, Chileans are still hopeful about Michelle Bachelet’s return to the presidency.

Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, then director of UN Women, visits in the European Parliament in Brussels, March 25, 2011
Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, then director of UN Women, visits in the European Parliament in Brussels, March 25, 2011 (European Parliament/Pietro Naj-Oleari)

Between protest marches and resignations, there has been no discernible honeymoon period for Chile’s new president, Michelle Bachelet. Riding high after her December election, drawing 62 percent of the vote, and  inheriting a thriving economy, Bachelet’s difficult first month has taken both her and the Chilean public by surprise.

Even before she entered La Moneda, Chile’s presidential palace, Bachelet’s fledgling government was rocked by the student activist movement whose protests helped her defeat Chile’s conservative coalition last year. As far back as January, weeks before Bachelet formally took office, Claudia Peirano, her nominee for education undersecretary, had come under fire. Within 24 hours of her nomination, there were calls from senior members in Bachelet’s own party urging Peirano not to accept the post, due to criticism from Chile’s powerful student movement.

Peirano has a background in education consultancy and in 2011, her firm signed a public letter stating its opposition to free university education. Her ex-husband, Walter Oliva, is also the director of a chain of privately run schools. Yet Bachelet’s election campaign had centered around the promise of free, universal university education and the resulting outcry from students, once Peirano’s views became public, forced her to decline the nomination.

A week before Bachelet’s March inauguration, incoming armed forces undersecretary Carolina Echeverría was also forced to step aside when it emerged that her father, Colonel Víctor Echeverría, was facing a lawsuit accusing him of torture during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. Though Bachelet insisted that Echeverría was not responsible for the alleged crimes of her father, having been a victim of torture during the military regime, public pressure on Echeverría made it impossible for her to join Bachelet’s government.

Further resignations took place as allegations of wrongdoing against four regional governors and two cabinet undersecretaries emerged, prior to Bachelet’s inauguration, prompting an emergency cabinet consultation. The allegations ranged from sexual assault to mismanagement of funds and there had been rumors that the opposition would attempt to summon Rodrigo Peñailillo, the incoming interior minister, for a parliamentary interrogation over the resignations.

There has also been criticism about the gender balance in Bachelet’s new government. While her first administration, between 2006 and 2010, was evenly split in terms of men and women, the current government is made up of fourteen men and nine women with surprisingly few members from the president’s own Socialist Party.

Bachelet, the former executive director of UN Women, explained, “I would have liked a team completely balanced in terms of gender and clearly this has not happened. But I accept the tremendous challenge we have as a country — to incorporate more women into positions of responsibility.”

The gender imbalance is probably the result of discussions between the government’s coalition parties, with an even gender split sacrificed to ensure it reflects parties’ congressional influence.

In addition to the series of resignations, Bachelet was welcomed into office by a demonstration dubbed “The March to End All Marches.” The rally, which took place a week after her inauguration, was made up of a range of civil society activists, from gay rights advocates to environmentalists. The march was branded by organizers as a “welcome” to the president and a show of support for her proposed social and constitutional reforms. However, it also underlined the public’s desire to maintain pressure on the new government, to make sure it delivers on its promises of radical change.

With a demonstration of this scale, and a flurry of resignations prior to the start of her administration, outsiders could be forgiven for thinking that Bachelet’s government is in disarray. Yet despite the hectic start, Bachelet remains serene. The first president since 1952 to serve a second term, she enjoys an unprecedented level of public support, her approval ratings remaining consistent throughout her first month in office. Her inauguration ceremony was eagerly anticipated even as resignations hit the headlines. Thousands of Chileans lined the streets of Santiago to watch her enter La Moneda.

Her inauguration ceremony was a particularly poignant moment, as Bachelet, Chile’s first female president, received the presidential sash from Senator Isabel Allende, the first female president of the Senate and daughter of president Salvador Allende, overthrown in Chile’s 1973 military coup. Both women lost their fathers to the junta, forcing them to flee Chile with their families.

As the dust settles on Bachelet’s difficult first month, she is aware that although it has been a tough, emotionally taxing few weeks, with public expectations so high, her time in office is about to get tougher.