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Chile's new President Michelle Bachelet sepaks at the presidential palace La Moneda in Santiago, Chile, Wednesday, March 12, 2014. Photo: AP Photo/Luis Hidalgo

Michelle Bachelet's victory in the presidential election clears the way for a swing to the left in the country after four years of centre-right rule writes Alastair Stephens

The Chilean presidential election last November saw the left candidate, Michelle Bachelet, elected for an unprecedented second term. She won the largest ever majority in presidential election, crushing her opponent by winning 62% in the second round of voting.

Friends disunited

Bachelet’s victory was all the more symbolic for the fact that her opponent was Evelyn Matthei. Both candidates are daughters of Air Force Generals; they grew up on the same military bases and played together as children. In the presidential debates they addressed each other with the familiar “tu”.

They were divided by the 1973 military coup against Salavador Allende’s Popular Unity government. Bachelet’s father, unlike the bulk of the Chilean officer class, opposed the coup. He was arrested, imprisoned and tortured, and died in detention six months later.

Bachelet joined the Socialist Party in 1970 and was active in the underground when it was outlawed. In 1975, she and her mother were arrested, taken to the notorious Villa Grimaldi detention centre and tortured. She went into exile after her release, and returned to the country in 1980.

Matthei’s father supported the coup. From 1978 until 1990 he was a member of the military council that ruled Chile, known as the Junta. Matthei became involved in politics in the late 1980s, when she campaigned for a yes vote in the referendum of 1988 on whether to extend General Pinochet’s presidency for another eight years. The country voted no, and democracy was restored. Elections were held in 1990.

Matthei’s defeat and Bachelet’s return for a second presidency could not have better represented the rejection of Pinochet and his regime, more unpopular now then when he was forced out of power 26 years ago. The media’s tendency to focus on the fascinating personal drama has obscured the real story of the election: Bachelet’s crushing victory was the result not of a rejection of the past, but a desire for real change, driven by the mass movements of the last few years.

Bachelet ran as a part of the New Majority coalition on a pledge to roll back the tide of neoliberalism and authoritarianism. The coalition was formed to replace the old Concertación coalition of centre-left parties. Bachelet declared that she wanted to form “the first government of a new social majority which will let us fight against inequality”. New Majority included not only the parties of Concertación, led by Bachelet’s own Socialist Party and the Christian Democrats, but parties to their left, such as the still-significant Communist Party.

Promise of change

Bachelet ran a left-wing campaign and promised to implement the first real reforms for a generation. The three planks of New Majority’s platform were tax reform, education reform, and a new constitution

Education reform will be the test of the new administration. Over the last decade the issue has caused wave after wave of protest. The Chilean education system is largely privatised. Families pay 75% of the cost of education, compared with 40% in the US and 5% in Sweden. The system has done much to entrench gaping inequalities in every area of society. Chile is the most developed society in Latin America, with a per capita GDP of $19,000. Nevertheless, it is the most unequal member of the OECD club of rich nations. Bachelet promised to reform Chile’s tax system, which is one of the most regressive in the world, and raise corporation tax from 20% to 25%.

Finally, Bachelet pledged to replace the constitution that was forced on the country by the Junta in 1980, which remained substantially unchanged after democracy was restored. Chile’s constitution was designed to lock in the neoliberal structures imposed on the country in the wake of the coup. It weights elections against the left, demands absurdly high majorities to change key policies and is extremely difficult to amend.

The masses in movement

The reform agenda was not a product of Bachelet alone, but a reflection of what she dubbed the “new majority”. Over the last few years, the capital, Santiago, and many other cities have been repeatedly brought to a standstill by massive student demonstrations, some comprising as many as 1 million people – extraordinary in a country of 15 million. The movement has been characterised by the sort of verve and imagination characteristic of the new urban revolts sweeping the world. More than 40 demonstrations were organised in a six-month period, and more than 100 schools were occupied.

The demonstrations were repeatedly attacked by the carabineros, the paramilitary national police force, with water cannon, tear gas and dogs, but they were supported by 70% of the population. The movement reached its height at the end of August 2011 when 500,000 demonstrators occupied Santiago’s main street, Bernardo O’Higgins Avenue. Days later, the country was paralysed by a two-day general strike called by the CUT union confederation, which was followed by another mass demonstration of 400,000 people.

“We are an auxiliary social movement to the principal social force of the workers,” 17-year-old student activist Alfredo Vielma told the left-wing news magazine Punto Final “that is to say, our parents.” Student activism over the last decade has consistently spilled over into the rest of the population, encouraging movements of workers and indigenous peoples.

Camilla Vallejo, the best known leader of the movement, told the Guardian that the student movement was central to breaking “the cultural hegemony of the neoliberal model imposed on Chile during the military dictatorship.” The innovation, depth and breadth of the student movement did much to undermine and destroy the political credibility of right-wing President Sebastián Piñera and prepare the way for the left’s election victories.

Much of the student left supported Bachelet’s election bid, despite her lack of action on education in her first term. Despite the usual demands for the students not to rock the boat or frighten the middle ground, they did not freeze their campaign for free publicly funded education system. Rather than subordinate itself to electoral considerations, the movement revived and staged some of its biggest demonstrations last spring.

Blockage in Congress

Vallejo and three of her fellow student leaders, Karol Cariola, Giorgio Jackson and Gabriel Boric, were elected to Congress in the congressional elections held last November – Vallejo and Cariola for the Communist Party. Despite Chile’s electoral system being fixed in favour of right-wing parties, the New Majority coalition won a majority in both Houses of Congress.

New Majority has sufficient votes to pass tax reform, but on other issues, includes education, the constitution requires a five sevenths vote in Congress. To get bills through it will have to co-operate with independents and do deals with at lest some of the right. This could lead to the kind of horse trading that characterised the presidencies of Eduardo Frei and Salavador Allende, in which all attempts at serious reform were gutted by the right-wing parties in Congress. As Camilla Vallejo says, “Many sectors say we won’t be able to make these changes because we don't have votes in Congress but we’ve learnt that there’s no limit to what the social movement can achieve... It’s not about using a calculator and seeing how many votes are missing.”

Pushing through reform will depend on activity, and as Giorgio Jackson says, keeping “one foot in parliament and one in the street”. The question is which it will put the most weight on. The failure to maintain the right balance between electoral politics and the movement has been the downfall of the Chilean left in the past.

Vallejo is right to say that there are things more powerful than parliamentary procedure, but she is a deputy for the Communist Party, which most consistently in the period of Popular Unity subordinated extra-parliamentary struggles to attempts to do deals with the right.

Past disappointment

A certain cynicism about Bachelet is understandable. The student movement of the last few years is a continuation of the mass student movement that erupted in March 2006, known as the “Penguin Revolution” after the black and white school uniforms, but when Bachelet was elected in 2006 she did nothing to satisfy its demands.

Bachelet personable style earned her high approval ratings during her first presidency, but the political disappointment at her failure to implement any real change meant that her personal popularity did not translate into support for her coalition. The Chilean constitution prevents Presidents from serving more than one consecutive term, so she could not run again. In the subsequent presidential election the Concertación candidate was beaten by the right-wing Sebastian Pinera. It was the first time the right had won the presidency since the return of democracy in 1990.

Political change in Chile was blocked not only by the constitution, but the centre-left parties’ reluctance to challenge the neoliberal political consensus, a reluctance they share with social democrats throughout the Western world. Nevertheless, the situation has moved on, and the blockage has been cleared by mass movements led and ignited by students. Chile is an example of how mass movements can change mass consciousness and electoral politics.

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.

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