Chile at a crossroads

Voters choose between nine different presidential candidates – but some may just stay home.

Michelle Bachelet is likely to win Sunday's presidential election [AP]

The outcome of Chile’s presidential elections is not a mystery. But that does not make these polls any less fascinating. 

Chile is the world’s longest country, running more than 4,000 kilometres from north to south. But it is unusual not just for its geography, but for its politics as well.

According to the International Monetary Fund, Chile has the highest per capita income in Latin America and is on the threshold of joining the “club of developed nations”. In the last 24 years of democratic government , unemployment and poverty have dropped significantly. It is also a model of political and economic stability in a turbulent region.

So, one might wonder why so many Chileans are disenchanted with their politicians and are clamouring for institutional and economic reforms. The reason, says former centre-left President Ricardo Lagos, is that expectations are now much higher.

“The problem here is that 80 percent of Chileans earn less than what is supposed to be our average. So if we don’t deal with the problem of uneven income distribution, we can’t satisfy the needs of an emerging middle class that has demands that are harder to satisfy than 20 years ago,” says Lagos, who has himself been criticised for promoting a free-market economy that distributes wealth unevenly.

Polls show that no institution is as discredited in Chile as its political parties, especially those in the centre-left coalition that governed the country from 1990 until 2010, when the current right-wing coalition of President Sebastian Pinera was elected. Few have been as critical of the system as the small but influential Communist Party, including Communist Youth leaders Camilo Ballesteros and Camila Vallejo, two of the organisers of nationwide protests that began two years ago. The movement for more equal distribution of wealth and free, quality education up to the university level resonated throughout the country.

Bachelet favourite as Chile heads to polls

But politics makes for strange bedfellows. Today, the Communist Party is part of the centre-left coalition supporting former President Michelle Bachelet, whose personal popularity remains so strong that polls indicate she is almost certain to win the election. Vallejo, who was once described as the most glamourous revolutionary since Che Guevara, is now running for Congress, while Ballesteros joined Bachelet’s youth team. They say they want to try to promote change from within a system they once called “reactionary”.

“Chile has grown and improved, of course, but what we want now is equality… that means equal opportunities to progress, equal rights in every aspect and move from a low-intensity democracy to one where their citizens have real participation,” says Ballesteros.

Undoubtedly, the student and social movement protests have significantly changed Chile’s political agenda. For the first time there are nine presidential candidates, and all of them but the centre-right candidate, Evelyn Matthei, are calling for significant reforms. Bachelet promises free education, better public health-care and pensions, higher corporate taxes, and a new constitution to replace the one put in place by the Pinochet military dictatorship in 1980.

But while some warn that the Socialist candidate is moving sharply to the left, political analyst Patricio Navia insists that could not be further from the truth.

“Most people who are voting for Bachelet are voting for her because they expect gradual change and Bachelet will deliver gradual change. Right now Bachelet is the candidate of the large entrepreneurs and the candidate of the student protesters. Certainly one of those groups will be disappointed come inauguration day. And it’s much more likely that the student protesters will be disappointed,” explains Navia. 

Meanwhile, a large number of people do not trust Bachelet or any of the other mainstream candidates. A campaign on social networks is urging Chileans to vote for one of the many alternative candidates, even though they have little chance of winning. Among them is former filmmaker Marco Henriquez Ominami, the son of an emblematic Chilean left-wing leader who died resisting capture by Pinochet’s soldiers in 1973. He says the old generation of political leaders has become complacent and corrupted, and must be replaced. Centre-right economist Franco Parisi, leftist economist Marcel Claud and community organiser Roxana Miranda all agree. 

And for the first time, Chilean voters have another choice: to stay home on election day. Voting is no longer mandatory, so just how many people decide to cast their ballots will be crucial for the legitimacy of the next president.

As one observer put it, “Bachelet has bigger problems than winning the election. It’s figuring out how to satisfy everyone’s expectations once she returns to the Presidential Palace that’s making her lose sleep.”

Source: Al Jazeera