Pinochet dictatorial legacy lingers in Chile's presidential race

The contest between Bachelet and a Pinochet era aide is more than a faceoff between capitalism and socialism.

Luis Hidalgo/AP
Former President Michelle Bachelet speaks to supporters after winning presidential primaries in Santiago, Chile, Sunday, June 30. Bachelet won the country's first ever presidential primary and will represent the center-left coalition in November's presidential election.

Chile’s presidential race officially has its front-runners after this weekend’s primary. Former President Michelle Bachelet, who was an underground rebel against dictator Augusto Pinochet, beat all competition in yesterday’s primary to become the candidate for the left-wing Concertación coalition. Pablo Longueira, who was an aide to Mr. Pinochet, was selected as the candidate of the right-wing Alianza.

While a growing number of voters weren’t even born when Pinochet turned over power in 1990, the 17-year dictatorship remains an important political reference. Ms. Bachelet campaigned on a promise to overhaul Chile’s constitution, saying it has locked the country into dictatorship-era policies. Mr. Longueira campaigned on a familiar conservative platform of tax cuts, aid to business, and opposition to illegal immigration.

But what at first glance looks like a simple test of Chile’s preference for socialism versus capitalism is much more complicated. While much of South America has experimented with radical changes, Chile has steered a centrist path since Pinochet. That will most likely persist, says Robert Funk, a professor of political science at the University of Chile in Santiago.

“Both need to shift to the center to win the election,” Mr. Funk says.

Bachelet went into the primary race facing loud complaints from the left, as her administration from 2006 to 2010 failed to fix an educational system widely blamed for deepening Chile’s gap between rich and poor. (She left office in 2010, as the country doesn’t allow immediate presidential reelection.) She began to advertise her support for a new constitution, likely attracting some of the discontented masses. But there’s no guarantee she will follow through with a total overhaul.
“A new constitution is one way” to fix deep problems, Funk says, “But how? A constituent assembly? Reform of present constitution? Should it be step by step, changing the electoral system and allowing for referendums? She is serious that something’s got to happen, but it’s not entirely clear that means going whole hog with a new constitution” in the next 4-year presidential term, he says.

The Pinochet-era constitution includes a collection of checks and balances to ensure that radical change is impossible. Education reformers in particular resent that they have been unable to change how schools are funded and regulated, because of the system’s built-in inertia.

Bachelet’s call for change seems to have struck a chord with Chileans. Of the 3 million votes cast in yesterday’s primary election, Bachelet received more than 1.5 million. She not only easily won a majority of the votes for the Concertación, but also got almost twice as many votes as the right-wing candidates combined. That makes her the candidate to beat in the general election on Nov. 17. If no one wins an outright majority that day, the top two candidates will go to a runoff in December.

Longueira, who joined the race just two months ago to replace a candidate tainted by scandal, will have to fight hard just to keep Bachelet from winning an outright majority. His ads during the primary focused on his ties to the working class and his call for social justice. His platform called for cutting the gasoline tax and giving more opportunities to small business. He pitches these as ways to advance equal opportunity in a country where class mobility remains even more limited than in the US, and much more so than in Europe or Canada, according to a 2012 study by the OECD group of 34 advanced economies.

Longueira now has a choice, observers say. He can stick to his guns and fight Bachelet on principles, or he can leave behind his personal history and embrace the tide of constitutional reform. Manuel José Ossandon, vice president of Piñera's party, told Radio Cooperativa today that Longueira can win only by supporting constitutional reform.

"If we don't confront these issues and show ourselves to be more open," he said, "They're going to demolish us."

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