Center-leftist Bachelet wins by landslide in Chile elections

The former president looks to capitalize on emphatic victory to reform constitution and address income inequality

Chilean president-elect Michelle Bachelet waves as she celebrates after getting the results of the run-off presidential election in Santiago on December 15, 2013.
2013 AFP

Michelle Bachelet was elected as Chile's president again on Sunday in a landslide runoff victory that should hand the center-leftist the mandate she sought to push ahead with wide-reaching reforms.

With nearly 99.85 percent of votes counted, Bachelet had about 62.15 percent support, the highest proportion of votes any presidential candidate has won since Chile returned to holding democratic elections in 1989.

Evelyn Matthei, the conservative candidate of the ruling Alianza coalition, trailed far behind at 37.84 percent of the vote – the right's worst performance in two decades.

"I am proud to be the president-elect of a country we have built and of the one we're going to build," Bachelet said during her victory speech at the Hotel San Francisco in Santiago on Sunday evening. "Its success depends on us. We must raise the foundations of the future and of the Chile we all want, so that it's no longer just a dream."

Bachelet, who led Chile between 2006 and 2010 as its first female leader, will look to capitalize on her resounding win to make changes aimed at redressing persistent inequality in the world's top copper exporter.

A physician by training, Bachelet is a moderate socialist and has promised 50 reforms in her first 100 days, once she takes office in March. Her flagship policy is a hike in corporate taxes to 25 percent from 20 percent, to pay for social reforms that include a move to free higher education within six years.

“A thank you goes out to the students,” Bachelet said Sunday evening. "They have strongly manifested their desire for a free and first-rate education system.”

Bachelet's campaign to return to La Moneda presidential palace suffered a setback last month when the presence of eight other candidates fractured the first-round vote and left her just short of the majority needed to seal the election outright.

So Sunday's large margin of victory will come as a relief, if not a surprise.

Approval ratings for Bachelet, loved by many Chileans for her warm and personable style, were sky-high at the end of her first term, despite criticism for her management of the 2010 earthquake and tsunami, which killed more than 500 people and happened in the last days of her mandate. Constitutionally barred from seeking immediate re-election, she has been the runaway favorite to win this year's vote since before she even launched her candidacy.

Her opponent Matthei, a brusque former labor minister, had been a last-minute choice for Alianza in July, and she struggled to gain traction against Bachelet. Hailing from the more conservative branch of the governing coalition, Matthei was tainted in the eyes of many Chileans by her association with the repressive 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Her father was a general in the ruling junta, and she supported Pinochet in a 1988 plebiscite.

Dissatisfaction with outgoing President Sebastian Piñera's administration also weighed on Matthei's campaign. Despite solid economic growth and plaudits for its fiscal responsibility, the government has been seen as out of touch and slow to respond to demands for change.

Chile's free-market economy and copper-fuelled growth have made it a Latin American success story in the last two decades. However, there are growing calls for its wealth and opportunities to be more equitably shared.

Bachelet is widely viewed as a “people's candidate” who is more likely to deliver this – a single mother who was a victim of torture during military rule.

"I want changes for the people, for the young students, more opportunities for those of us from the lower middle class," said 25-year-old electrician and Bachelet voter Maximiliano Valdes.

Bachelet returned to Chile earlier this year to run for the presidency after a spell heading the United Nations' gender equality body, U.N. Women. Politically naive when elected eight years ago, she is now a more sophisticated operator who is in a better position to get things done, those close to her say.

At the top of her list is reforming education. High-quality schooling is generally only available in Chile to those who can pay, and sometimes-violent student protests demanding change have hurt the Piñera administration. Bachelet also plans to change the Pinochet-era constitution and electoral system.

But her power will be crimped by a divided Congress. Despite losing seats in November's congressional elections, Alianza still has a large enough majority to block at least electoral and constitutional changes. There are some indications that they will be willing to bargain but the price of that may be watered-down reforms.

The president-elect also faces high expectations from those who voted her in, and she is not likely to be given much of a honeymoon once her four-year term starts.

As Chileans voted in the election’s first round, on Nov. 17, student protesters briefly occupied Bachelet’s campaign office in Santiago and hung up a banner outside the building that read: “Change is not in La Moneda (presidential palace), but in the streets.”

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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