Will Chile bring back former President Bachelet?

As Chileans go to the polls Sunday, they are likely to select former head of state Michelle Bachelet, who many believe can answer the chorus of Chilean grievances. Are expectations too high?

Maglio Perez/Reuters
Chilean presidential candidate Michelle Bachelet of Nueva Mayoria (New Majority) delivers a speech during her closing campaign rally in Santiago on Thursday. Chileans go to the polls in the first round of presidential elections on November 17.

Santiago’s Plaza de Armas is a museum of discontent. In the course of a single recent day, striking government workers, protesting teachers, and animal rights activists all held rallies, each gathering watched over by nervous police.

“All the studies and observations show that the Chilean people have a deep malaise because they feel unheard,” says Marcela Ríos, a political scientist in the governance program of the United Nations Development Program in Santiago. And this is in good economic times. “We always wonder,” Ms. Ríos says, “what would be the public reaction if things went badly?”

As Chileans go to the polls to vote for a president Sunday, they are likely to bring back a former head of state, Michelle Bachelet, who many believe can answer the chorus of Chilean grievances and make the system work.

Former President Bachelet left office in 2010 with a sky-high 84 percent approval rating, and if she wins the election as pollsters overwhelmingly predict, that love could be put to the test.

Ms. Bachelet had plenty of rough moments in her 2006 to 2010 term. And skeptics, including her leading opponent, conservative former labor minister Evelyn Matthei, are asking if Bachelet can manage to deliver free higher education, higher taxes needed to deliver that service, and more regulation without risking the country’s economic miracle. 

But polls show an army of supporters ready to give her another chance.

“Michelle wants to make the changes that this country needs,” says Adriana Cabeza, a retiree sporting a Bachelet lapel pin on the Santiago Metro. The seven other candidates “lack preparation” for the presidency and “would be chaos,” she says. “But the country needs change. It’s a pressure cooker.”

Protest marches have been a constant drag on the government of President Sebastian Piñera, who was the first conservative to be elected to the top job since 1958.

Environmentalists oppose dams, indigenous groups and soccer fans chant against police crackdowns, workers seek higher pay, gays blast homophobic violence, and — most of all — students demand an educational system with more equal opportunity.

With this election, many Chileans hope to move beyond protests to systemic change. In speeches, Bachelet has promised dozens of reforms to how Chile runs its schools, taxes businesses, and treats indigenous people. She has largely campaigned to the left, allowing the Communist Party into her center-left bloc for the first time. She has called for changes to the constitution, which dates to the right-wing dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet and creates a permanently deadlocked legislature, slowing change. She has offered to soften Chile’s strict anti-abortion laws and to allow gay marriage.

Whether she can fulfill those promises is another story. For example, her official platform offers only to change the constitution within existing structures, rather than hold the constitutional convention demanded by a broad movement in the country. The platform remains vague about gay marriage and abortion, in order to satisfy the relatively conservative Christian Democrats in her coalition. And business groups are preparing to oppose her plan to slowly increase business taxes.

Up to now, Bachelet has largely been immune from the sense of disappointment that burdens many ex-presidents. Despite her mishandling of the 2010 earthquake and tsunami – calling off a tsunami warning and leaving coastal residents in harm’s way – she has remained well in the lead in polls throughout this campaign.

“She has a very personal connection with the people, a connection that isn’t polluted by politics,” says Patricio Navia, a Chilean professor of political science at New York University, who is in Santiago for the election.

Bachelet’s support is largely a result of how she handled the 2008 crash in copper prices, which threatened the country’s economy. Chile’s fiscal rules allowed her to tap a rainy day fund and hand out a series of stimulus checks, boosting her approval ratings from the 40s to the 80s.

She has a “very firm base” among the millions of Chileans who benefited from her economic stimulus during the 2008 crisis, Ms. Navia says.

Eight opponents have sought to break Bachelet’s support since the campaign began. From the right, Ms. Matthei says the former president makes unrealistic promises that could hurt Chile’s economic growth. From the left, she has faced heat for approving controversial mining, agriculture, and energy projects during her first term.

Bachelet’s support predates the campaign. A year ago, before she declared herself a candidate, 54 percent of respondents in a poll by the Santiago-based Centro de Estudios Públicos, or CEP, said they had already decided to vote for Bachelet. When the CEP released its latest report at the end of October, they found that among those who were certain to vote, Bachelet’s support was the same 54 percent.

Polls from the international polling firm IPSOS show a tighter race, with Bachelet leading Matthei 32 percent to 20 percent. If no one wins a majority in the election Sunday, Chile will hold a second round runoff in December.

The results won’t be known until Sunday night, and Matthei, who is polling second, could mount a more vigorous challenge in a second-round election. She has been touring the country, visiting homes, housing projects, and job training centers to offer new proposals.

“May Chileans fulfill their moral and ethical duty” by going to vote, Matthei said at her birthday party Monday in a working-class town near Santiago. Analysts say a higher turnout for her and the seven independent candidates could keep Bachelet from winning outright Sunday, potentially giving Matthei another month to try to catch up.

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