Bachelet era begins with change

Chile's first female president named a cabinet of 10 men and 10 women Monday.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Michelle Bachelet made history Jan. 15 by becoming Chile's first female president.

Monday, she chalked up yet another precedent: naming a cabinet of 10 female and 10 male ministers. It's the first of its kind in the entire western hemisphere - and one of few examples in the world.

"This Cabinet reflects the new style of government I've proposed," Ms. Bachelet said, as she announced her choices. They included women in the key portfolios of economy and mining, as well as in her own two former ministries: health and defense.

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It's a significant change to the political status quo, and expected to be the first of many. But in a country known as the most socially conservative in the region, not everyone is celebrating her announcement. In fact, some experts question whether she'll sacrifice competence for image.

"I think it's a grave error," says Ignacio Illanes, an analyst with the right-wing thinktank Liberty and Development (Libertad y Desarrollo). He puts it bluntly: "There's only one way to have a 50-50 cabinet and that is by lowering the quality of the cabinet."

Many of Bachelet's choices are political newcomers. But Illanes says, with a shorter presidential term recently reduced from six to four years, it's more important than ever to have an experienced ministerial team that doesn't need training.

At the same time, the relative lack of public uproar over Bachelet's cabinet - and her very election - seems to reflect a profound socio-cultural change.

On election night, hundreds of thousands of Chileans packed the streets of Santiago to celebrate her historic presidential victory.

Grandmothers could be seen throwing confetti from their balconies. Housewives with their entire families in tow could be heard screaming "we're going to clean up house."

The massive outpouring of emotion was a rare cacophony of female voices in a country where they have long been muted (if only in public) and where being 'feminist' holds very little cachet.

Bachelet becomes Latin America's fifth-ever female president, and the only one currently in office - although in neighboring Peru, female candidate Lourdes Flores is leading the polls ahead of April's presidential elections. After Bachelet's victory, Flores declared: "I'm happy that women are advancing. ... But we'll advance more, once [the region has] two presidents."

Bachelet's victory is certainly symbolic, but many are asking just how it will be different. In almost every interview she has given since being elected, Bachelet has stressed how her style will differ from her popular predecessor, President Ricardo Lagos.

"My style will be much more participatory, seeking to coordinate, articulate, and excite people around the tasks ahead," Bachelet says. "It's a style that could be characterized as more feminine, but which in reality, I think is more modern."

But some experts wonder whether she'll be able to move beyond style, into substance.

Specific promises on women's issues

Beyond gender parity in the cabinet, Bachelet made several promises to women during her campaign, including free preschool care for working moms in the poorest 40 percent of the population, and a Non-Discrimination and Good Labor Practices Code for the public sector, with voluntary adoption for the private sector.

She also promised to put an end to discrimination against women of childbearing age in private healthcare plans, and to create one million new jobs in the next four years with employment subsidies and job training programs, some targeted specifically to women and single mothers.

Bachelet also called for stricter laws against domestic abuse, more protection for victims, and more victims-attention resources.

Despite these specific promises, however, feminist academics say Bachelet has been hesitant to play the gender card.

"She has been much more sensitive than other candidates to gender issues but that doesn't mean she has a gender-based agenda," specifies Rossana Castiglioni, a political scientist at Diego Portales University, in Santiago. "That could be a difficulty in itself because women might be expecting a series of changes that aren't necessarily going to transpire."

Still, Bachelet may have more chances of delivering on her promises than any of her predecessors. That's because her coalition got an unprecedented majority in both houses in December's congressional elections, which could make it easier for her to pass her reforms. But as a free-market socialist, Bachelet has promised to stay the course on most social and economic issues.

"She's promised change with continuity," explains Ricardo Lagos Weber, Bachelet's new secretary-general for the government (a cabinet post that is the presidential spokesman), and son of the popular outgoing president Lagos.

"I think the challenges will be the same in terms of the objectives of the government and the program," says Mr. Weber.

"I think what will be different is that because of the fact that she's a woman, and the first woman elected in Chile, everyone will be looking much more closely at what she does and the way she does it. She's very much aware that the yardstick from which her government will be assessed, will be much tougher, perhaps, which is unfair. But being aware of that, she will perform superbly."

Will Bachelet be any different?

The higher level of scrutiny and expectations on female leaders was an obstacle discussed at a recent conference on women in politics, held in Santiago, at the United Nation's Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Juliana di Tullio, just elected to Argentina's legislature last October, signaled that women have been making inroads ever since Evita Perón became a regional role model in the 1970s, and ever since feminism began shifting from an academic to a popular struggle. Ms. Di Tullio says that struggle is reflected in Bachelet's massive popular appeal.

Still, others aren't so sure Bachelet will be any different from previous female leaders.

"It's an issue of probabilities, not of gender," says Illanes, pointing out that very few male leaders make a mark either. "I'm inclined to think that she'll be a pretty average president, no better and no worse. She won't leave any special mark. She won't be a Margaret Thatcher."

"But if she makes mistakes ..." he says, pointing out Bachelet already made a pre-election fumble about who sets Chile's currency exchange rates.

"It's entirely possible that she will become the brunt of jokes that poke fun at her gender as the cause of her mistakes ... in the same way people attribute bad driving to there being a woman behind the wheel," he says.

"It's perfectly possible that she'll face caricatures of this kind. It's unfair, but it's quite probable."

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