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07/25/2013

After a turn to the right, Chile prepares for a return to the left

Bachelet
Michelle Bachelet on the day she was elected Chilean president the first time, in January, 2006.

Predictions are difficult, or so they say – especially about the future.

But it seems a fairly safe bet that the next president of the Republic of Chile will bear the same name as the former president of the Republic of Chile.

In other words: Michelle Bachelet.

In her country’s first ever presidential primary, the pediatrician-turned-politician who served as president from 2006 to 2010 was handily nominated to lead the leftist New Majority coalition in the first-round vote, set for Nov. 17. Bachelet won 73 per cent of the ballots cast in the primary.

Her main opponent will be the country’s former economy minister, Pablo Longueira, 55, who squeaked out a narrow victory in the primary on the right-wing side of the body politic, with 51 per cent of the vote. He will seek election on behalf of the conservative Alliance for Chile coalition.

The contest could yet become a race, but it seems more likely that Bachelet will regain the presidency in a walk. Recent public opinion polls show her with high approval ratings among Chileans generally – about 75 per cent – a vastly better showing than poor Longueira, who’s down around 20 per cent.

Constitutionally barred from seeking immediate re-election, Bachelet departed Chile at the end of her previous presidential term in order to head the United Nations’ gender-equality agency, based in New York City.

Now 61 years old, she’s home again and seems likely to stay for at least the next four years, marking what looks to be a return to left-leaning rule in a country best known internationally for copper, wine, fresh fruit, and the brutal 17-year dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, which ended in 1990.

Oh – and Nobel laureates for literature. The country boasts two: Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral.

Bachelet’s first term as president ended amid the destruction of a massive earthquake, whose epi-centre was located off the western seacoast, not far from Concepción. Her replacement was billionaire businessman Sebastian Piñera, whose inauguration was a memorable affair, interrupted by terrifying aftershocks that surged through the streets and shook the buildings of Valparaíso, much to the collective dismay of visiting Latin American heads of state, most of whom hailed from less seismically challenged lands.

And so Chile returned to right-wing rule for the first time since the end of the dictatorship. The economy has flourished – with high employment and low inflation – but Piñera has seen his popularity plummet in the face of worker and student demonstrations mainly generated by dissatisfaction with the country’s yawning economic disparities.

Chile, as is frequently noted, possesses the most lop-sided economy in the 34-member Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Bachelet’s liberal credentials are impeccable. After all, her father was effectively tortured to death during the Pinochet dictatorship, and she herself was imprisoned. Nonetheless, she charted a middle-of-the-road course during her previous turn at the presidency, letting market forces rule and doing little to promote a more egalitarian distribution of the nation’s wealth.

That may change if she is elected again, as now seems almost inevitable. Already she has pledged to loosen Chile’s austere anti-abortion laws and to permit gay marriage, among other reforms.

Whoever wins the presidency this fall – actually, spring in Chile –  will take office next March.

Here’s hoping it’s a quiet time, seismically speaking.

Oakland Ross is a foreign affairs writer for the Toronto Star.

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