Evelyn Matthei can only hope for a miracle. Only an inexplicable turn of events, it seems, will avoid a rout by Michelle Bachelet in Chile’s presidential runoff on Sunday — Latin America’s first presidential face-off between two women.
Members of Matthei’s campaign staff privately admitted as much before the first round of elections on Nov. 17, which saw Bachelet, the 62-year-old former president from 2006 to 2010, take 47 percent of the vote, nearly twice as much as Matthei. Seven other candidates trailed far behind.
Bachelet, who left office with an 84 percent approval rating after her first presidency, continues to enjoy immense popularity in Chile. And Matthei herself has conceded that she is at a disadvantage against Bachelet’s “extraordinary charisma.”
But Matthei may be running against her own past as much as she is against Bachelet. Matthei voted in a 1988 plebiscite to extend the rule of former dictator Augusto Pinochet — a vote that Pinochet lost and ushered in a new era of democracy in the Andean nation of 17 million people. That vote remains lodged in the minds of many Chileans, who recently marked the 40th anniversary of the Pinochet-led coup.
Matthei defended her vote during Tuesday’s presidential debate, the last before Sunday’s elections. “It was a coup called for by an immense number of citizens,” she said, referring to the overthrow. “Obviously, it wasn’t a democratic government. Some call it a government, others a dictatorship. I call it a government — remember, my father was there.”
Bachelet and Matthei were childhood friends during the 1950s, when their fathers were stationed at the same military base. But Matthei's father flourished under the Pinochet regime, while Bachelet's father, Alberto, who opposed the coup, was imprisoned and tortured. Bachelet and her mother were also tortured by the regime before being exiled to Australia and Germany in 1975.
The candidate of the center-right Alianza coalition used the debate to attack Bachelet for her handling of the February 2010 earthquake and ensuing tsunami, which killed more than 500 people. She also warned that Bachelet’s planned tax reforms would slow down Chile’s economy. The shots, however, failed to graze Bachelet. An Ipsos/Santiago University poll taken the day after the debate predicts that Bachelet will cruise to victory with 63.7 percent of the vote to Matthei’s 36.3 percent.
Matthei has failed to profit from the relative success of President Sebastián Piñera, the billionaire businessman who has seen Chile’s economy grow by an average of 5.5 percent annually under his watch. The unemployment rate, stuck at 10 percent when he assumed office, now sits at 5.7 percent and is the envy of Latin America. But those impressive numbers also haven’t helped Matthei, who served as labor minister under Piñera.
Despite those glowing economic gains, Piñera’s government is widely seen as indifferent to massive student protests that began in 2011. Those calls for a more inclusive educational system have resonated among a growing middle class increasingly angered by income inequality and calling for a more egalitarian distribution of wealth. A recent University of Chile study concluded that the country's wealthiest 1 percent accounts for 30 percent of all income.
Bachelet, meanwhile, has promised to sustain the emergence of the middle class. The center-left candidate of the Nueva Mayoría, or New Majority, coalition has vowed to raise corporate taxes, with its current loopholes that help corporations sidestep payments when profits are reinvested. The added revenue from these reforms, Bachelet says, will help pay for extensive changes to Chile’s higher education system, including the promise of free higher education for all students within six years. Matthei says continued economic growth should fund new programs, not higher taxes.
Bachelet, who resigned as executive director of U.N. Women in March to run for office, also has called for drastic changes to the Pinochet-era constitution, with its system of checks and balances that makes profound change extremely difficult.
Reform, though, won’t come easily. Although Bachelet’s New Majority bloc gained congressional seats during the first round of elections, it failed to secure super majorities needed to assure reform.
Nonetheless, there is little doubt that Bachelet will emerge Sunday with a renewed energy to enact the key pillars of her agenda — something not lost on Matthei. On Friday, she assessed her chances of victory by evoking the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground for 69 days in 2010 before being rescued.
“The accident of the 33 miners reinforces my faith in miracles,” she said.