Bachelet’s Election in Chile

The 2006 Presidential Contest 



by | May 2, 2006

Although Michelle Bachelet’s presidential election victory has understandably made news as she has become the first woman president in Chile (and the first woman who is not the widow of an important political leader to be elected in Latin America), the fact that she represents the longest ruling coalition in the country’s history sheds more light into recent political developments in the most successful economy in Latin America. Because Bachelet (born in 1951) successfully combined a message of change (based primarily—though not exclusively—on her being a woman) with a message of continuity, she was able to win the runoff election on January 15, 2006. Without having the idea of change as a central component of her campaign, the continuity that she represented would not have sufficed for a victory. Likewise, had she not been a candidate of the ruling and popular Concertación coalition, the fact that she was a woman would not have constituted an electoral asset.

Although Bachelet is a lifelong militant of the Socialist Party, her election should not be included in the current wave of left-wing victories in Latin America. For one, Bachelet is from the center-left Concertación coalition that has ruled Chile since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990. As the fourth consecutive Concertación president, Bachelet represents much more continuity than change in terms of social, economic and foreign policies. Because she has promised to maintain the economic policies that have made Chile the most successful economy in Latin America, her election is more an approval of the economic and political development model implemented by Christian Democrats (PDC), Socialists (PS, PPD), and Radicals (PRSD) in Chile than a leftist turn that resembles developments in other Latin American countries.

The first Concertación president, Patricio Aylwin (1990-94, PDC), talked about a “free market social economy” and vowed to give neoliberalism a human face. True, poverty was dramatically reduced from 40 to 20 percent and the size of the economy more than doubled in ten years. But the policies adopted by Aylwin and his successor, Eduardo Frei Jr. (1994-2000, PDC), were squarely in tune with those promoted by the Washington Consensus and international lending institutions. Ricardo Lagos (2000-06), the third consecutive Concertación president—and a Socialist—further deepened neoliberal policies. In addition to signing free trade agreements with the United States and the European Union, Lagos adopted a very conservative fiscal policy, with a structural fiscal surplus of 1 percent of the GDP into the national budget. Even in 2005, an election year, and despite soaring copper prices (Chile’s main export commodity), the Lagos administration showed remarkable fiscal spending restraint. The absence of lavish spending did not mean lack of focus on social programs. Ambitious and well-designed programs to promote access to health, education, and infrastructure development have radically transformed Chile under Lagos, who is leaving office with approval ratings of more than 60 percent.

As she was the candidate of the incumbent Concertación coalition, Bachelet’s victory can hardly be seen as a Chilean turn to the left. Her personal rise to power is closely associated with the Ricardo Lagos government. Appointed as Minister of Health in March 2000, Bachelet was one of the five women to be appointed in Lagos’s first cabinet. She first received wide press attention when, less than a week after his inauguration, Lagos gave her a 90-day limit to put an end to physical waiting lines in public clinics. Because health reform had been a major component of his presidential campaign, Lagos decided to announce radical and immediate solutions to a difficult problem. Perhaps because she was given an impossible task to accomplish—and she duly presented her resignation at the end of that 90-day period—her popularity grew rapidly. Although her accomplishments as Minister of Health have been widely questioned by the conservative opposition, during the almost two years she served in that position, Bachelet became one of the most popular ministers in Lagos’s cabinet.

In January of 2002—following a midterm parliamentary election in which the ruling coalition lost votes and seats—President Lagos appointed Bachelet as Minister of Defense. Although she was trained as a pediatrician, her personal interests led her to develop a parallel career as a defense expert. The daughter of an Air Force general who was sympathetic to the socialist cause and served under Salvador Allende, Bachelet was arrested and tortured after the military coup of 1973. Her father died when he was being held by the military, and her mother was also arrested and tortured. After her father’s death, Bachelet and her mother left for exile, first in Australia and then in East Germany. She married a fellow Chilean there and returned to Chile in the early 1980s, where she completed her medical education. When Pinochet left power in 1990, Bachelet was an active militant of the Socialist Party. Her interests in defense issues led her to take classes in military academies—including a one-year stay at the Inter American Defense College in Washington, D.C.—and to obtain a master’s degree in military sciences in Chile.

Because she was the first woman to be named Minister of Defense, her appointment captured wide attention. Moreover, being the first Socialist to to take such a post since the 1973 military coup and a victim of political prosecution herself meant that the symbolic significance of her appointment could not be underestimated. It was a historic moment in Chile’s successful but difficult process of democratic consolidation. The manner in which she conducted herself as Defense Minister and her ability to personify the national desire for reconciliation and closure strengthened her position as the most popular minister in the Lagos cabinet. Although the idea of having a woman as presidential candidate had been floated around within the Concertación when Foreign Affairs Minister Soledad Alvear, a Christian Democrat, emerged as a leading presidential contender after Lagos was inaugurated, the thought of having Bachelet, a divorcee, mother of three, Socialist, agnostic, and former political exile as the Concertación’s standard bearer seemed too wild to become true.

But as time went by and Lagos’s term came to an end, Bachelet’s popularity continued to increase. By late 2003, she was the most popular Concertación presidential hopeful, surpassing Alvear, who had remained on top of the list since 2000. In September of 2004, a month before the municipal elections, President Lagos reshuffled his cabinet and, given their presidential intentions, let Bachelet and Alvear go. They both campaigned heavily for Concertación municipal candidates and contributed to an overwhelming victory by the government coalition in October 2004. Soon after, Bachelet was proclaimed presidential candidate by the Socialist Party and the Partido por la Democracia (the second and third largest of the four-party Concertación coalition). Because Alvear was proclaimed by the Christian Democrats (the largest party in the Concertación) in January of 2005, presidential primaries were scheduled for July 31, 2005 to choose the coalition candidate. As Bachelet strengthened in the polls, Alvear opted to withdraw her candidacy in June 2005. For the first time in its history, the Concertación had a woman as its presidential candidate.

Because of Lagos’s superb performance and the overall economic success and political stability of the 16-year old Concertación government – and because the conservative parties overly identified with Pinochet’s authoritarian legacy during much of the 1990s, the Concertación easily won the 2005 election. With more than 51 percent of the vote, the center-left coalition secured its 12th consecutive electoral victory, a majority in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate (comprised only of elected members for the first time since 1990). Bachelet obtained only 46 percent in the first round (the lowest for any Concertación presidential candidate since 1990). She came ahead of right-of-center candidate Sebastián Piñera (25.4 percent), conservative candidate Joaquín Lavín (23.2 percent) and Humanist-Communist Tomás Hirsch (5.4 percent). Because she is a woman (which scared some male voters away) and because she underplayed her proximity to Lagos, Bachelet was forced into a runoff against Piñera. She went on to obtain 53.5 percent of the vote to become the first woman to be elected President in Chile.

Despite her electoral troubles, Bachelet successfully attracted voters who had historically been less inclined to support left-wing candidates. Men have historically supported the candidates of the center-left coalition more strongly than women (in Chile, votes are tallied separately by gender). If Augusto Pinochet obtained only 44 percent of the vote in the 1988 plebiscite that brought an end to his 17-year dictatorship, his support among women reached 47.5 percent. In all elections held since the return of democracy, conservative parties captured a higher share of women’s votes than the Concertación. In 1999, Lagos won the election with 51.3 percent in the runoff. But in the first round and the runoff conservative Joaquín Lavín got an absolute majority (50.6 percent and 51.4 percent respectively) among women. Lagos became president with a 54.3 percent among men and 48.7 percent among women voters in Chile. In 2005, Bachelet captured 47 percent among women (44.8 percent among men) in the first round. In the runoff, she won 53.3 percent among women and 53.7 percent among men. Because most of those—primarily men—who had supported the Humanist-Communist candidate in the first round (5.4 percent) voted for Bachelet in the runoff, she ended up collecting more votes among men. Yet her ability to attract many women voters constitutes a fertile ground for the Concertación’s electoral future. Although it is too early to tell, the electoral prospects of the center-left coalition in 2009 seem already very solid.

During her campaign, Bachelet promised that her government would be characterized by gender parity (an equal number of men and women in top posts). She also promised new faces (“nobody will have seconds,” she said). Her campaign sought to promote a bottom-up approach to complement a successful, yet distant, top-down model implemented by Concertación technocrats. “Just as medical treatments will not work if you fail to engage patients, the policies Concertación governments implement will work better if you promote participation, inclusion, and diversity,” she told me once during the campaign. Bottom-up to complement top-down seemed to be her motto during the electoral season. Although she did deliver on her promises of gender parity and new faces (10 of her 20 appointed ministers are women and only two have served as ministers in previous governments), the promise to adopt a more bottom-up approach to government might be more difficult to accomplish. Moreover, the idea of a citizens’ democracy might be counterintuitive in a political system such as Chile’s, based on stable and strong parties. Yet, as her victory had as much to do with change in style as with continuity in policies, Bachelet is determined to go beyond the Concertación’s celebrated successful but top-down social policies designed to reduce poverty and foster growth.

Bachelet has also embraced the long-term goal of reducing inequality. By promoting more participation and addressing inequalities beyond income and wealth—such as gender inequality—she might quell the structural determinants that feed income inequality. In so doing, she must be careful not to undermine some of the social structure and institutional equilibriums that have allowed Chile to advance in achieving economic growth, poverty reduction and democratic consolidation. Thus, even though her election does point to some differences and changes with regard to previous Concertación governments, Bachelet’s electoral victory in Chile is above all a loud ratification by Chileans of the road map that has made that southern nation the most successful economy in Latin America in the past 16 years and one of the most solid and plural democracies in the region

Spring | Summer 2006Volume V, Number 1

Patricio Navia is an adjunct assistant professor at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University.

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