Bachelet, Fernández push politics beyond gender

Bachelet and Fernández Wikimedia Commons

This article was originally published on November 8, 2007 by the Miami Herald under the title “Bachelet, Fernández push politics beyond gender.”

Women are breaking the highest of glass ceilings in politics. On Oct. 28, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner became Argentina’s president-elect. Since March 2006, Michele Bachelet has been president of neighboring Chile. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t revel in the imagery.

Bachelet is nothing if not authentic. After months of torture by Augusto Pinochet’s thugs, her father — a general loyal to democracy — died of a heart attack. She and her mother also suffered imprisonment after the coup and were later exiled. In 2002, Bachelet became Chile’s first woman defense minister. She promoted reconciliation between the military and Pinochet’s victims. ”Violence ravaged my life,” she said. “Because I was a victim of hatred, I have dedicated my life to refuting hatred.”

Bachelet did not enter La Moneda — Chile’s White House — the conventional way. Only once before, in 1996, had she stood in an election — the mayoralty of a Santiago suburb — which she lost. The presidency is, therefore, her first elective office. Bachelet’s life story, her intelligence, inner peace and natural charisma swayed the hearts of Chileans, and the Concertación — the center-left ruling coalition since 1990 — retained the presidency.

Her administration is having a bumpy ride. Student protests, labor strikes, a rise in crime and, especially, the badly mismanaged launching of Transantiago, the capital’s transit overhaul initiated under Ricardo Lagos’ presidency, have taken their toll. The center-right opposition and even some within the Concertación think her weak and unmoored. Bachelet’s approval ratings — up somewhat lately — have been the lowest of any president since the return of democracy.

While relentless in its charges, the opposition is not primarily responsible for the president’s troubles. Neither is gender the principal reason for her decline in the polls. Bachelet’s relative inexperience may have cost her. After 17 years in power, the Concertación may also be running out of steam. Should it lose the 2009 election, life will go on. Chile’s democracy is strong, and so it will do what democracies do best: transfer power to the opposition without much ado. Of course, the Right has to win the presidency at the polls, an unaccomplished feat since 1958.

Fernández is as much of a pol as any of her male counterparts. In the 1970s, she and Néstor Kirchner, her husband and outgoing president, joined the Peronist Youth Movement and remained within the fold of center-left Peronism ever since. In Congress since 1995, she entered the national stage before her husband.

Fernández will switch places with Kirchner without having competed in a primary for the nomination, debated the other presidential candidates or even campaigned much for votes. That’s Peronism for you: Kirchner designated his wife as successor and a clientelistic machinery turned the election into a coronation.

In her first television interview as president-elect, Fernández said all the right things. Fighting poverty, creating jobs, improving healthcare and education while gaining in economic competitiveness are all priorities. The much-disbelieved official inflation figures will soon be calculated using a U.S.-inspired methodology. Once in office, Fernández emphasized she’d govern for all Argentines, a conciliatory gesture that Kirchner never extended.

Choppy waters await the soon-to-be President Fernández. The past few years’ economic boom may be cooling. While she won decisively with 45 percent, her two closest rivals garnered 40 percent. Her electorate was mostly poor and rural, theirs largely middle class and urban. Making Argentina more competitive may require benefiting the opposition’s voters at the expense of her own. Will Fernández — like her husband — sideline the reform of state institutions?

A woman CEO may not lead exactly as a male CEO. Yet, she had better keep her eye on the bottom line, or she’ll be fired.

Bachelet must do her job so that the Concertación carries the 2008 municipal elections, which would leave it in better shape for the presidential contest. To meet her priorities, Fernández must strengthen institutions and work within them. Competitiveness, in particular, will not blossom from unreformed Peronism. That’s politics beyond gender. Otherwise, vive la différence!