It represents quite a comeback for Chile’s former president Michelle Bachelet. Opinion polls are only uncertain about whether or not she will win outright in Sunday’s first round in Chile’s presidential elections, something that has not been done in 20 years.
Although her centre-left party has failed to excite voters Bachelet gets strong personal approval ratings.
The right has also failed to dazzle in this all-female contest. The Allianza bloc has had to deal with riots and social unrest while in power, and its presidential candidate Evelyn Matthei has failed to ignite her campaign.
Voting in some countries is required by law – but no longer in Chile. For the first time, people may vote if they want to. Among other changes: most of the candidates are campaigning for reform of the constitution that was written under the dictator Augusto Pinochet. This comes in a country in which a neo-liberal economic model has made growth glaringly unequal, and socially divisive.
The leading candidates are polar opposites. Mathei’s father was the top air force general in the junta that ejected democratically-elected civilian President Salvador Allende in 1973. Bachelet’s father was tortured and died in prison as a general loyal to Allende.
Michelle Bachelet was president until just four years ago. Presidents may not serve consecutive terms in office, so now she’s back in the running and determined to govern again, with the centre-left in coalition with Chile’s communist party. The 62-year-old is also determined to make taxation fairer, and to overhaul public education, from nursery school to university.
“This will ensure quality that is free and not for profit, that is inclusive, on the principle that education is a social right and not a commodity,” she says.
Economist and pianist Evelyn Matthei was labour minister until July. She is the candidate of the Alliance of right-wing Chilean parties affiliated with outgoing President Sebastián Piñera.
“Our plan looks like the Germany of Merkel; their plan looks like the Germany of the Berlin Wall,” was one of her pithier remarks on the campaign trail.
The 59-year-old sees no advantage in changing the constitution of Pinochet’s time, during which tens of thousands of dissident Chileans were imprisoned, tortured and murdered by the regime.
Matthei proposes continuing with market-oriented neo-liberal policies that favour big companies and which have permitted around six percent growth – though that is now closer to four percent – and kept unemployment nominally low, but which have also brought civil discontent to a boil.
The head of the Federation of Chilean University Students says it is high time the country raised the conditions of ordinary people.
“Four years ago, talking about free education would have been considered crazy; now it’s seen as a necessity. We got very used to the idea that private industry was the most efficient way, that profits were the motor of all human activity, and that the state had to take a secondary role. After years of us mobilising it is understood that there are areas in life where business must be eradicated,” says Andrés Fielbaum.
Student demonstrations throughout Piñera’s term have increasingly moved other groups to protest their deep dissatisfaction in Santiago. Voting will be voluntary, abstention possible, perhaps handing Chile’s next president a weakened mandate.