Bringing Back Bachelet
by Gregory Weeks and Silvia Borzutzky
It appears increasingly likely that Michelle Bachelet will be elected as president of Chile, a position she held from 2006-2010. Here, the co-authors of The Bachelet Government: Conflict and Consensus in Post-Pinochet Chile provide useful insights into the immediate and often overlooked political challenges that Bachelet will face. Gregory Weeks is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Silvia Borzutzky is Teaching Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Carnegie Mellon University.
After leaving the presidency in 2010 and working outside the country for UN Women, Michelle Bachelet swept back into Chile, handily winning the 2013 presidential primary. There is a widespread sense of inevitability about her victory in the November 2013 election, especially after Pablo Longueira, the winner of the right’s primary, abruptly withdrew, citing depression. She is in “pole position.”
What receives less attention are the immediate political challenges she would face if victorious.
A key point is that since the transition to democracy in 1990, the center-left has emphasized consensus: keep the coalition—now named Nueva Mayoría, or New Majority–together and thereby win elections. The coalition’s original leaders, such as President Patricio Aylwin, remembered how partisan polarization had led not only to the brutal 1973 coup but also to years of ineffective opposition to the dictatorship. Only by working together could the center-left function. Bachelet maintained that mindset, but we argue that “the harder she tried to create consensus the more conflict she encountered” (13).
Why? The essential problem is that consensus also entails maintaining the basic economic structure inherited from the dictatorship. As we detail in the book, Bachelet came to office with many campaign promises, but at the same time advocated for sound fiscal policies that made some of those promises impossible to keep. We also argue that she failed to incorporate the demands of Chilean youth, which sparked the student protests that are still active.
As a result, she often felt compelled to shuffle her cabinet and name commissions to study the demands and unfulfilled expectations that kept cropping up. As she did so, the coalition’s popularity sank and its candidate, former president Eduardo Frei, lost the 2010 presidential election.
Fast forward to 2013. An unpopular president, Sebastián Piñera, is about to leave office, plagued by protests, to the point that The Economist called him “an inept politician.” It would seem a propitious time for Bachelet to return.
But she will face the same problems. She has made even more promises than she did before the 2009 election. The themes discussed in our book’s chapters remain problematic, such as her delicate relationship with the coalition, the difficulty of creating a coherent political narrative, dissatisfaction with a globalized economy, education and labor protests, gender policy, and indigenous rights.
As Robert Funk argues in the book, while she was president Bachelet made a point of saying hers was a “gobierno ciudadano,” or “citizen’s government.” Now she is repeating the same point, namely that Chile should be a country of citizens, not clients. She is making promises about a new constitution, education reform, tax reform, improvement of animal rights, dealing with water shortages in the north, more health specialists and even dental care. In short, the list is quite exhaustive. Taken together, Bachelet cannot realistically fulfill them without challenging the existing economic order, something no Chilean president has done since 1990.
Overall, Bachelet’s dilemma mirrors the divide in Chile more broadly. The country is held up as a model for stability and growth, but is also highly unequal, which leads to an undercurrent of dissatisfaction. We may see a second Bachelet administration, but it will not likely be as triumphant as it appears.