This December, Chileans are expected to elect their first female president, who also happens to have been the country’s first female minister of defense and a single mother. Michelle Bachelet is well ahead in most polls, though carrying less than 50 percent of the likely vote, making it likely that her victory will ensue from a runoff election. Though well-liked and popular in her homeland, few outside Chile are familiar with her history or her proposals for Latin America’s most dynamic economy.
Bachelet’s success stems from her ability to project her status as a common Chilean, her anti-Pinochet credentials, and her Socialist Party affiliation, whose brand and reputation is in good condition after years of a booming economy under outgoing President Ricardo Lagos. Her gender seems not to have stunted her popularity, though she puts to rest any accusations of being soft on defense with her success in reforming the military, an institution historically dominated by the male elite. As minister of defense, she pushed through reforms to upgrade defense capabilities and include women in the military, making the percentage of female conscripts higher even than in the United States. A pediatrician by training, she also headed Chile’s health ministry until 2002, where she worked to reduce waiting times at public hospitals.
Her proposed economic policies are similar to those of her party colleague, Ricardo Lagos. As socialists, they are both committed to reducing the wide wealth gap and broadening access to education and telecommunications. Bachelet has proposed improvements to the country’s pensions system, famously privatized by the nation’s former secretary of labor and social security, Jose Pinera. Bachelet has said that she will maintain the current sales tax, crack down on tax evasion, and spend carefully the revenues produced by copper exports, which provide almost 15 percent of government revenues.
If Bachelet is in fact elected this Saturday, she will be the first Chilean leader to rule under the newly reformed Chilean constitution, signed by Lagos this September to reduce the entrenched control of the military over the country’s politics. Thus she will have the power to fire the armed-services commanders and summon the military-affiliated National Security Council, instead of the previous system that granted the NSC automatic advisory powers over the president. The reforms also changed the president’s term from six years to four to coincide with Congressional elections, giving Bachelet less time to prove her worth as just the second female ever to be elected president in a South American nation.
More background information at The Latin Americanist