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Former Chilean President Prepares to Ride Again

Outgoing Chilean president Michelle Bachelet casts her ballot in 2010. After an absence of four years, Bachelet is favoured to triumph yet again in elections this Sunday. (ARIEL MARIUNKOVIC /AFP/Getty images.)



If public-opinion polls mean anything at all, the next president-elect of Chile will have a great deal – in fact, just about everything – in common with a previous president of Chile.

Enter, stage centre-left: Michelle Bachelet, who previously served as her country’s head of state from 2006 to 2010. Now a youthful 63, the former-pediatrician-turned-socialist-politician is the odds-on favourite to triumph in presidential elections set for this coming Sunday.

The only apparent question mark has to do with the margin of victory. Will Bachelet secure a first-round win by garnering more than 50 per cent of the ballots cast or will she be obliged to contest a December run-off against the runnerup in this weekend’s vote?

Either way, the sunny-mannered mother of three seems certain to find her way back to La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago.

Constitutionally barred from seeking re-election following her first term as president, Bachelet has spent three of the past four years heading the United Nations’ agency for women.

Her replacement as Chile’s ruler has been Sebastián Piñera, a billionaire businessman who, by many accounts, has done a pretty good job in difficult circumstances. He was the first right-wing candidate to gain the Chilean presidency since the long and brutal dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, which ended in 1990. Just days before Piñera’s inauguration, Chile was pounded by a major earthquake that did substantial damage to the country’s infrastructure, claimed hundreds of lives, and left tens of thousands homeless.

More recently, the country’s major cities have been rocked by ongoing street demonstrations, mostly involving students who are angered by social and economic inequalities that still haunt one of Latin America’s most prosperous countries. During Piñera’s term in office, Chile has enjoyed substantial economic growth and low unemployment, but dissatisfaction persists because the benefits of that record have disproportionately benefited the well-to-do.

Leader of a centre-left coalition, Bachelet seems intent on pushing more aggressively for progressive-minded reforms when she assumes the presidency for the second time, as seems all but certain. She has promised to spend more on public education, while raising taxes on corporations and drafting a new, more liberal constitution.

A recent poll by the Centre for Public Studies put Bachelet 30 percentage points ahead of her nearest rival – easily enough to guarantee victory and possibly enough to win the race in the initial round. Her main opponent is Evelyn Matthei, who has served as labour minister in Piñera’s cabinet and who represents a stark contrast to Bachelet, at least in political terms.

Both are women and both are the daughters of air force generals, but they and their fathers suffered diametrically opposite fates in the wake of the 1973 coup that overthrew socialist president Salvador Allende.

As commander of the air force, Matthei’s father joined the ruling junta led by Pinochet, who headed the army.

Meanwhile, Bachelet’s father – Alberto Bachelet – was an opponent of the coup and wound up in prison, where he was tortured and abused. He eventually died of a heart attack, caused at least in part by the mistreatment he endured during his incarceration.

Gen. Bachelet’s daughter was also imprisoned and tortured, but she survived and was banished into exile in Australia and later Germany.

Now, by all appearances, she is back – yet again.

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



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