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Chile’s New Bachelet, Even More Hardline Statist?

By: María Teresa Romero - @mt_romero - Nov 14, 2013, 11:52 am

EspañolAccording to precedent and the polls, Chile — one of the most developed and modern Latin-American countries — will proceed with ease and calm through its presidential and legislative elections on Sunday, most likely with a broad change to people in office. The political stability, built in Chile over several decades of painful experiences and struggles, prevents the handover from a market-oriented government to a socialist one (or vice versa) from entailing much drama or widespread concern. That is in contrast to what happens in most Latin-American countries.

This may be why these elections have failed to attract much interest from the population. Opina Research’s lastest poll, which predicts an easy victory for former President Michelle Bachelet, reveals that only 13.6 percent of respondents claim to have followed the campaign “closely.” On the other hand, 42.5 percent say they have followed it “a little” and 43.1 percent say they haven’t followed the campaign “at all.”

Most Chileans seem confident that a new Bachelet administration, despite her notable differences in style and specific agendas from Sebastián Piñera’s, will be very much like her first. There will be reforms, but the Constitution will be adhered to; the government will stay within the democratic political, economic, and social framework that has advanced ever since 1988, based on a pluralist national consensus. Given her first mandate, the Chilean majority seems convinced that their preferred candidate will further the country’s modernization and democratization, as did Piñera after taking office from the hands of Bachelet herself in March 2010.

However, some Chilean politicians, businesspeople, experts, journalists, and intellectuals have made public their concerns and doubts regarding Bachelet’s forthcoming administration. Their thinking is that she might lean further towards socialism than she did in her first term (2006-2010). As a result, she would damage not just the status quo or the prevalent democratic system, but the country’s healthy economic and political growth.

President Sebastían Piñera himself has warned that the opposition candidate’s government agenda is “anti-growth.”

And they have every reason to be worried. It doesn’t bode well that the former president is approaching the elections relying on a new political platform that goes beyond the well-known positions of Concertación de Partidos de la Democracia. That coalition won the 1988 plebiscite, which put an end to Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorial regime, and ruled the country from 1990 to 2010.

Now, the Nueva Mayoría (New Majority coalition) joins the parties that used to conprise the Concertación, along with the Chilean Communist Party and some minor groups that fall outside normal ideological lines.

Bachelet and her new political coalition’s government proposals for the future are also to be feared, such as tax reform. They plan to collect US$9 billion by eliminating tax exemptions and benefits for small and medium-sized enterprises, or by increasing stamp and seal taxes; they want more “free, non-profit” education, which will cost $3.5 billion; and they proposal a Constituent Assembly to draft a new Constitution.

The lack of clarity regarding the form and content of the new Magna Carta, in particular, makes some fear that Chile will follow the same path as its neighboring  members of the ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance). That implies a less free, statist nation and a less democratic nature of power — notably with the legal authority for presidents to be reelected indefinitely.

Only the post-electoral reality will reveal the route that the new Chilean administration will follow, probably chaired by Michelle Bachelet. It will largely depend on whether the assorted and twisting political coalition that supports her achieves the parliamentary majority it would need to accomplish its ambitious and populist agenda.

But even if they obtain a vast majority of the votes, the former president will have to tread carefully. Although most Chileans favor certain populist reforms, they are not willing to validate a government that arrests the development and quality of life attained so far. Now will they tolerate one that shows the same features as its neighbors with so-called 21st Century Socialism. Those regimes, besides being economically depressed, no longer have the political influence they used to flaunt during Bachelet’s first administration.

María Teresa Romero María Teresa Romero

Romero is a journalist with a PhD in political science, specializing in international politics. She's a professor at the Central University of Venezuela, a columnist in several Venezuelan and international newspapers, and the author of several books. Follow her at @MT_romero.