The Return of Bachelet

SANTIAGO – Michelle Bachelet’s landslide victory in Chile’s recent presidential election represents a mandate that many political leaders could only envy. But her return to the presidency comes with a crucial caveat: record-high abstention calls into question the claim made by some within her coalition that voters want a profound shift away from the market-friendly policies that have made Chile Latin America’s most stable and successful democracy.

In 2010, Bachelet completed her first four-year term as president with an 80% approval rating. Her fiscally responsible economic policies, combined with a strong focus on poverty-alleviating social programs, allowed her government to weather the global financial crisis of 2008. Still, after 20 years in power, her left-wing Concertación coalition was defeated in the presidential election that year by the center-right candidate, Sebastián Piñera.

Now, after a single term of an economically successful but unpopular Piñera government, Chileans have returned Bachelet to power. In addition to being Chile’s first woman president, Bachelet is the first president since 1938 to be elected to a second term, and her margin of victory – 62% to 38% – over the right-wing candidate, Evelyn Matthei, set a new record. But the high abstention rate in this election – the first with automatic registration and non-mandatory voting – also means that Bachelet will become President with fewer votes than any of her predecessors since democracy was restored in 1990.

Bachelet will not have the luxury of a honeymoon. During the presidential campaign, as the candidate of the New Majority coalition – the old Concertación plus the Communist Party and other small leftist groups – she made specific commitments that helped raise expectations. Though the government’s program is likely to be less ambitious and qualify many of her campaign promises, the poor and lower middle class – her main electoral base – expect that she will move swiftly, for example, to end for-profit elementary and secondary education and offer free universal tertiary education.