Bachelet has her work cut out in Chile

Voters have given the Socialist leader another chance to deliver a radical shift in social equality

One day after his centre-right coalition lost elections, Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera went to the home of the nation’s new Socialist president-elect, Michelle Bachelet, to pay his respects.

I had seen the same scene four years ago, but reversed, as President Bachelet visited Pinera’s house to offer her co-operation in the transition period.

This very civil and friendly behaviour – not very typical among political rivals in Latin America – in no way belies the swing that Chile is taking, from centre-left to right to left again – and this time it has swung a little harder to the left.

Many in the region are puzzled. In neighbouring Argentina, which has recently witnessed widespread looting – on top of widespread corruption, double-digit inflation and political polarisation – people ask themselves why Chileans are so keen on going back and forth. Some ask: If it is not broken, why fix it? After all, unemployment ni Chile is at an all time low, economic growth at a sustained high, and, according to the IMF, per capita income has the nation on the doorstep of being considered a developed country.

But ask the majority of Chileans why they voted for Bachelet on Sunday, and they’ll tell you it is because all of the above is not enough – at least not anymore.

Lavish praise from the IMF, the World Bank and Forbes does not compensate for a high concentration of wealth in too few hands. Poverty is way down, but the lower and middle classes encounter formidable barriers to social mobility. Education and health care, for example, are extravagantly expensive.

After two decades of waiting patiently, Chileans are now demanding that the fruits of democracy and economic success be shared more equally, and they are going to give Michelle Bachelet another chance to deliver the goods. She left office in 2010 with an 81 percent approval rating, the highest popularity of any outgoing president in the world. She could not run for re-election at the time, because successive terms are forbidden here. Bachelet did not resolve the issue of inequality in her first administration, but she did substantially increase social spending. That is also not enough anymore.

“Chile has grown and improved, of course, but what we want now is equality,” says Camilo Ballesteros, a Communist who helped lead nationwide student protests demanding a new deal in education.

“That means equal opportunities to progress, equal rights in every aspect and a shift from a low-intensity democracy to one where citizens have real participation.”

Indeed, over the past four years, Chilean society has become far more demanding – and Bachelet is having to offer a lot more: free universal education up to and including university, better universal health care and pensions, and a new constitution to replace the one left in place by Chile’s former military dicatatorship.

Bachelet’s personal appeal and charisma are undeniable. People identify with her down-to-earth style, and the fact she speaks to them in their language. Yet, as I confirmed talking to shoppers in Santiago’s fruit and vegetable market, this time around, Chileans will be holding her to a higher standard.

“I want Bachelet to know that the 64 percent of us who voted for her want substantial changes,” says stall owner Ramiro Ramiruso. “If she does what she has promised, she will go down in history. If she does not, she better just go home.”

Follow Lucia Newman on Twitter: @lucianewman