January 16, 2006
As expected, Socialist Michelle Bachelet won the second-round presidential election in Chile, and will become the second woman ever elected to that post in Latin America whose
husband did not precede her [accession to office had nothing to do with marital ties. Violeta Chamorro was elected president of Nicaragua in 1990 largely as a gesture of support for her martyred husband Pedro. (See correction note on Jan. 18.)] (The first was Mireyra Moscoso, president of Panama from 1999 to 2004.) As soon it became clear that Bachelet had received about 53 percent of the vote, conservative Sebastian Piñera conceded defeat. He picked up most of the votes that had gone to conservative Joaquin Lavin, in the first round, but he would have needed almost all of them to gain an absolute majority. She has served as minister of health and minister of defense under the Lagos government, and seems well qualified. See BBC This historic event sparked euphoric street celebrations in Santiago.
The conservatives in Chile seem to have accepted yet another defeat, some more gracefully than others. Piñera congratulated Bachelet for her triumph, and pledged that his party coalition will adopt a stance of "firm and constructive opposition" toward the new government. One of the conservative parties, the Independent Democratic Union, blamed Piñera's defeat in part on the "abuse of power" and "disinformation campaign" waged by the incumbent government of Ricardo Lagos. See El Mercurio Online (Spanish). Why do the right-leaning parties keep losing in a country that has been such a showcase for capitalist success? To a large extent, it's the legacy of General Pinochet, who has never expressed remorse for the murders, torture, and disappearances that his government carried out. Most Chileans are probably deeply torn over the meaning of the Pinochet Era. They recognize that his policies set the stage for a remarkable era of prosperity, at least by Latin American standards, and yet the sensibilities of the large, well-educated middle class are deeply hostile to the authoritarian values he imposed. It's much like Spain, where the legacy of Franco taints anyone who openly espouses conservative values and principles. It is better to keep such thoughts to one's self. That is why in practice, Socialists in Spain and Chile tend to govern very pragmatically, knowing that they must not kill the market-economics "goose" that laid the "golden egg" of prosperity.
What about the future? Since Chile has had Socialist or left-leaning presidents for the last sixteen years, ever since the Pinochet dictatorship ended, I don't foresee any major policy changes after Bachelet takes office. There will almost certainly be sharp tensions surrounding cultural issues, however. Having an agnostic like her serve as president will no doubt deeply offend many Catholics in Chile, and her professed "belief in the state" will no doubt cause high anxiety for many free-market liberals -- the "Chicago boys" and [folks like] them; see Dec. 10 post.
Here's a linguistic conundrum: should Bachelet be called Señorita or Señora? She is an unmarried mother, a situation that the Spanish language does not accommodate.
UPDATE: In her first detailed comments about her future policy plans since her election victory, Ms. Bachelet declared that her cabinet will consist of an equal number of men and women, as the first step toward creating a "more equitable society." Hopefully Chile will avoid the pitfall of affirmative action quotas that have paradoxically slowed progress toward social equity in this country, and which remain a source of social distrust. She also expressed a desire to improve relations with Peru and Bolivia, and voiced conditional support for the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, which is rather remarkable for a socialist. See BBC.