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Chilean presidential candidate Michelle Bachelet with a soccer jersey from Valparaiso's Santiago Wanderers club
Presidential elections in Chile on Sunday are widely expected to herald a shift to the left with former president Michelle Bachelet returning to power after the rightwing government of Sebastián Piñera struggled to satisfy growing demands for greater equality.
The election pits the popular Ms Bachelet, a 62-year-old paediatrician who left the presidency in 2010 to head the UN’s organisation for women, against the government’s candidate, Evelyn Matthei, a 60-year-old labour minister under Mr Piñera.
Although Chile’s economy flourished under Mr Piñera, with unemployment at record lows and macroeconomic stability strongly entrenched, his spokeswoman Cecilia Pérez admits that it will be “difficult” for Ms Matthei to win, given the widespread protests, especially by students, that dogged Mr Piñera’s presidency
It remains unclear whether the centre-left Ms Bachelet will win an outright majority, avoiding a run-off vote on December 15, but a victory for her is set to pave the way for greater taxes on business in a resource-rich country with one of the most unequal populations in the region.
Both contestants are the daughters of airforce generals, although Ms Bachelet’s father opposed the 1973 coup d’état led by General Augusto Pinochet, while Ms Matthei’s became a member of the military junta.
With Chile commemorating the 40th anniversary of the military coup in September, many expect Pinochet’s legacy to count heavily against Ms Matthei, who even Mr Piñera criticised for supporting the dictator in a 1988 plebiscite that triggered the downfall of his regime.
Ms Pérez says that the government’s rightwing alliance “faces a complicated scenario” after two candidates fielded before Ms Matthei both bowed out of the race – the first under a cloud of corruption allegations, the second for health reasons – while Chileans have become increasingly “demanding and disappointed with the political class”.
As well as Ms Bachelet and Ms Matthei, an unprecedented seven other candidates are also running in the elections, reflecting a widespread dissatisfaction with Chile’s traditional political parties, something that analysts say the charismatic Ms Bachelet has managed to transcend.
“She’s a kind of Chilean Eva Perón,” says Tomás Mosciatti, a political analyst who runs the Bio-Bio radio station. “She’s very loveable. People identify with her because she’s just like they are – down to how she talks, and what she likes to eat.”
She’s a kind of Chilean Eva Perón. She’s very loveable. People identify with her because she’s just like they are – down to how she talks, and what she likes to eat
- Tomás Mosciatti, political analyst
According to a poll by the well-respected Centre for Public Studies, Ms Bachelet is streaks ahead of her competitors, with support from 47 per cent of the population – potentially enough for an outright win if blank and spoiled ballots are taken into account. Ms Matthei trails behind with 14 per cent, with two independent candidates not far behind. But a separate survey by Ipsos showed a much tighter contest, with 35 per cent favouring Ms Bachelet compared with 22 per cent for Ms Matthei, suggesting that a second round is more likely.
Nevertheless, a victory for Ms Bachelet, an unmarried mother of three, is all but certain to return to power the centre-left coalition that governed Chile since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990, after a brief four-year hiatus.
Ms Bachelet has based her campaign on three broad promises: reform of the constitution introduced by Pinochet, an overhaul of the education system including free university access for all, and tax increases equivalent to 3 per cent of gross domestic product that would finance the reforms demanded by rebellious students.
“A hard left turn lies ahead, although the outlines are not well defined – there is a lot of ambiguity,” says Luis Larraín, executive director of the Liberty and Development think-tank, who adds that Ms Bachelet has not been more specific about her policy proposals in order to keep together a diverse coalition that ranges from Christian democrats to Chile’s communist party.
Although Ms Bachelet’s reform proposals have raised concerns among businesses – she plans to raise the corporate tax rate from 20 per cent to 25 per cent over four years and make companies pay tax on reinvested earnings – analysts question whether this would necessarily stifle investment and growth.
“There is room for an increase in taxes,” says Klaus Schmidt-Hebbel, president of Chile’s fiscal council. “Raising the quality of education, health and infrastructure are areas where more spending could yield a [sufficiently] high rate of return.” Perhaps of greater concern is whether Ms Bachelet will deliver on her promises to Chile’s increasingly restless population, which is one of the most unequal in the region and accuses the billionaire Mr Piñera of governing in favour of the rich.
“If there is no change, that could lead to greater instability. There will be more frustration, more social discontent, and the people will take to the streets to protest,” says Carlos Ominami, a former socialist senator. “Chile has stopped being a boring country.”
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