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What’s At Stake in Chile’s Presidential Elections?

By Michael Shifter
La Tercera, November 17, 2013


In Latin America, eyes are once again on Chile.  Will the country long seen as a laboratory for policy innovation continue to be a reference for a region that is seeking to address longstanding inequalities, while maintaining democracy and economic growth?

With Michelle Bachelet´s expected return to La Moneda, there are reasons to be optimistic.   Bachelet, sensing the public mood of widespread frustration and desire for deep reforms, has put forth an ambitious agenda.   She will try to overhaul the current 1980 Constitution, and carry out important political, tax, and education reforms.

Achieving all of this will be far from easy.   Bachelet´s enormous personal appeal and the trust she instills will of course help.   But whether she will secure the necessary support in Congress to enact such reforms is a big question.  Bachelet will need to negotiate and reach agreements across the political spectrum.   Her political skills will be tested.    

There is a chance she may not be able to accomplish very much.    Towards the end of the campaign Bachelet has wisely sought to keep expectations under control.   A dose of realism is healthy.  Chileans should know that dramatic change doesn´t happen from one day to the next. 

But if Bachelet succeeds in at least pursuing a good part of her agenda, there is no reason to worry that Chile´s impressive success in recent years will be jeopardized.   On the contrary, the risk is far greater if nothing happens and the promise of meaningful reform is frustrated.  That would be a recipe for even broader discontent and heightened social unrest.   

In recent years it has become increasingly clear that for most Chileans, especially young Chileans, there is a “new agenda” that needs to be seriously tackled.   The agenda centers around inequality and need for a greater measure of social justice.  Intelligent and moderate government regulation of the market is also key.  

Bachelet´s proposals do not fundamentally challenge the system or model that has produced so much progress in Chile.   They do, however, imply adjustments that could result in a new social compact.    They would lead to more progressive tax code and help redress the injustices in an education system that favors the wealthy.  They would also buttress the “old” agenda of democracy and economic growth.

To be sure, one can raise legitimate questions about the wisdom of some of Bachelet´s reform proposals.   These should be carefully considered and fully debated.   Through negotiations, they will be modified. 

Fortunately, Bachelet has a consensual political style and has shown that, though her heart is on the left, she is a responsible pragmatist.  She recognizes that give-and-take within her own coalition, as well as with the opposition, is vital for such reforms to succeed and work well.   The alarmists should take a deep breath and calm down.