Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Is Bachelet a Shoo-in?

Michelle Bachelet / CC BY-SA 2.0

Q: Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet announced March 27 that she would run again for the country's presidency in the Nov. 17 election. Bachelet said that if elected to a second term in office, she would put income inequality at the top of her agenda. Is Bachelet, who still enjoys high approval ratings in Chile, a shoo-in for another term? Who will give Bachelet her toughest competition in the race? What issues are driving the campaign?

A: Jorge Heine, former Chilean ambassador and CIGI chair in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs: "Polls indicate that if the elections were held today, Bachelet would win comfortably, but her election is not a shoo-in. She left office with high approval ratings in 2010, and cemented her reputation at U.N. Women in New York. Yet, the huge gap between her and her rivals will narrow. She should win the Concertación primary on June 30 hands down, but Nov. 17 will be different. The ruling Alianza coalition counts on having a firm 40 percent of the vote. Laurence Golborne, the former public works minister and UDI candidate, who is competing in the Alianza primary against former defense minister Andrés Allamand, is a strong candidate. Marco Enríquez-Ominami, the young maverick who ran in 2009 and got 20 percent of the vote, is bent on running again. The possibility of no candidate getting a majority of the vote in the first round as required to avoid a runoff should not be discarded. Chile's considerable progress over the past 20 years has led to a middle-class society. The unfairness and inequality of many of Chile's social arrangements, from low taxes on the rich (the tax intake is a mere 17 percent of GDP, just about the regional average), to for-profit university and health-care systems, loom large among middle-class concerns. The current government of President Piñera, which has managed the economy well, has done little about the latter. If Bachelet addresses these issues, as she did with the pension system reform she undertook in office, she will have a winning card."

A: Peter M. Siavelis, professor of political science and director of the Latin American and Latino Studies Program at Wake Forest University: "Michelle Bachelet's triumphant return from self-imposed exile in New York harkened back to historical images in Latin America, where deposed populist leaders were welcomed back by their adoring supporters. One could almost forget Chile's reputation for having strong and institutionalized political parties given the fanfare surrounding the charismatic leader's return. The conventional wisdom is that Bachelet is a shoo-in for the presidency given citizen disenchantment with the center-right's Alliance for Chile and the lack of serious challengers within her own Concertación coalition. Despite these realities, Bachelet faces two opponents in her race to the presidency that could potentially derail her candidacy: her record and her own coalition. While Bachelet made splashes in New York, Chileans preferred to speculate on her return rather than scrutinize her past record as president. Now that she has returned, debate will turn to her previous administration's performance and particularly the resurrection of the debate over the Transantiago public-transportation system and questions surrounding her government's response to the February 2010 earthquake. In addition, though she is remarkably popular, her own coalition polls consistently at about 20 percent. One should not underestimate the significance of the lack of reference to her own coalition's parties in the widely anticipated announcement of her candidacy. Her challenge will be to distance herself from these two opponents without seeming to do so--this is a challenge more imposing than any one of her current political adversaries."

A: Kirsten Sehnbruch, director of the Center for New Development Thinking at the school of economics and business at the University of Chile in Santiago: "Few presidential candidates in the world have ever faced an election scenario as favorable as Michelle Bachelet. According to the Centro de Estudios Públicos, her approval rating is holding steady at 75 percent. Eighty-five percent believe that she is best qualified to become president, 76 percent trust her and 54 percent want her to be the next president of Chile. Only 15 percent want Laurence Golborne, the strongest of the other candidates running against her, to become president. However, it would be a mistake to consider her a shoo-in. Questions about voter participation under new electoral rules, allegiances to traditional voting blocs and the emergence of new political actors add a measure of uncertainty to the final outcome. Bachelet's biggest challenge will be to confront criticisms from both the right and left about election promises made now, which could have been addressed while she was in government, even though the right-wing opposition at the time dedicated itself to blocking further reforms. Bachelet has promised that addressing issues of equity at all levels will be her primary task if re-elected. This is a tall order in a country which, despite 30 years of relatively strong economic growth, remains among the world's most unequal. Improving equality requires structural reforms. Political reform, a new fiscal pact, labor market reforms and industrial diversification are required to complement and fund the expansion of existing social policies, particularly in the crucial area of education policy. In turn, structural reforms of this kind require strong political majorities. The most important question that emerges is therefore not whether Bachelet will be re-elected, but whether she will be able to command such a majority."

A: Peter Winn, professor of history at Tufts University: "The return of ex-president Michelle Bachelet to Chile, after two and a half years at the United Nations, jump started the 2013 presidential campaign. It seems no contest. None of the potential standard-bearers for the governing center-right Alliance for Chile comes close to Bachelet in the opinion polls. Unless something dramatic happens, all signs point to an easy Bachelet victory. That is the political miracle that the center-left Concertación coalition, which ruled Chile from 1990-2010, is counting on. Instead of taking its 2010 electoral defeat as an opportunity to rethink itself, the Concertación blamed its defeat on its candidate, ex-president Eduardo Frei, and waited for Bachelet to return and restore it to power. This dependence of the Concertación on Bachelet has increased her autonomy relative to the parties of the coalition and their leaders. It is reinforced by her high approval ratings, a popularity far greater than the Concertación, its parties or their leaders enjoy. Bachelet tried to run as an above-party candidate in 2005. However, when she did poorly in the first round, she was forced to rely on the parties to mobilize votes in the runoff and lost her autonomy. In 2013, Bachelet is likely to win in the first round. She avoided contact with Concertación leaders prior to her return to Chile, a sign that she intends to maintain her autonomy this time. Another sign is her announcement that her priority as a second-term president will be inequality, the underside of Chile's economic 'miracle.' This is not a policy priority that all of the Concertación agrees on, but it should be a popular platform for her to run on. In the short run, the re-election of Bachelet may save the Concertacion, but a second Bachelet presidency is also likely to challenge the coalition."

A: Patricio Navia, master teacher of global studies at New York University: "As previous Concertación candidates--and as she did in 2005--Bachelet will campaign on promoting equality. Because Chileans perceive that the right-wing government of Piñera produced more growth but did little to reduce inequality, the message will resonate with voters. By campaigning on growth-promotion policies, the right-wing Alianza candidate will have little chance against Bachelet. However, because the Concertación did not do enough to reduce inequality during its 20 years in power, Bachelet will need to work hard to convince voters that this time things will be different. Bachelet will keep her lead, but there will be strong incentives for many voters to abstain or cast protest votes for any of the alternative presidential candidates. If Chileans remain suspicious of traditional politicians, alternative left-of-center candidate Marco Enríquez-Ominami can draw sufficient support to challenge the Alianza candidate--Laurence Golborne or Andrés Allamand--for the second place to Bachelet's likely first-place finish in November."

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