Chile at a crossroads?

Chile is a model of political and economic stability in a turbulent neighbourhood, so why are people disenchanted?

The results of Chile’s presidential elections are not a mystery, but that does not make these presidential and congressional elections less fascinating.

Chile is the world’s longest country, but it is unusual not just for its geography, but its politics.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Chile has the highest per capita income in Latin America and is on the threashold 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 clamoring for institutional and economic reforms.

The reason, says former center left President Ricardo Lagos, is that expectations are now much higher.

“The problems 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 twenty years ago,” says Lagos, who himself has been criticised for promoting a free market economy that distributes wealth unevenly.

Political parties

Polls show that no institution is as discredited in Chile as its political parties, especially those that made up 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 were 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 university level resonated throughout the country. But politics makes for strange bedfellows.

Today, the Communist Party is part of the center-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 argue that 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 there citizens have real participation,” says Ballesteros.

Chile’s political agenda

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 but the center-right government candidate, Evelyn Mathei, are calling for significant reforms.

Bachelet promises free education, better public health and pensions, higher corporate taxes, and a new constitution to replace the one left by the Pinochet dictatorship. 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 protestors. Certainly one of those groups will be disappointed come inauguration day. And its much more likely that the student protestors will be disappointed,” says Navia.

But there are a large number of people who do not trust Bachelet or any of the other mainstream candidates.

That is why there is a campaign on the social networks urging Chileans to vote for one 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. Center-right economist Franco Parisi, leftist economist Marcel Claud and community organiser Roxana Miranda all agree.

And for the first time, there is another choice that voters have never had, and that is to stay home on election day.

Voting is no longer mandatory, so just how many people decide to actually 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.”

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