In 2005 I cast my vote for Chile’s first woman president, Michelle Bachelet, at a women-only voting center in an all-girls school in my Santiago neighborhood. Polling booths and voting tallies in Chile are no longer distinguished by sex, but gender was impossible to ignore in this Sunday’s election. Two women came head to head and, after four years of center-right rule, Bachelet of the left-leaning New Majority, won with 62% of the vote, defeating her rival from the coalition of center-right parties, Evelyn Matthei.
Local observers and the international press have made much of this unprecedented race between two female candidates, a contest that is virtually unthinkable in the United States and other socially advanced countries where women have a much greater participation in the labor market, say. The lesson may be one of breaking barriers; in her highly successful first term, Bachelet made Chileans feel comfortable with a female head of state. Since then, a number of women have been elected to key positions not only on the national scene but also as local mayors and student body leaders.
If a woman president is old news in Chile, the world would be wise to keep up with the outcomes of this election for another reason. The Chilean electorate is no longer content simply with political stability after the traumas of the dictatorship. Increasingly, voters are looking for meaningful change on several fundamental issues. If Bachelet can steer a clear course between facile populism and crippling inaction it could be a track to true reform that others in the region — and elsewhere — might usefully follow.
Bachelet is very probably the last president to hail from a generation of men and women whose political pedigrees can be traced to the heady years of the return to democracy in 1990. Over more than two decades, she and her center-left comrades gradually defanged and reformed the military while they pursued justice and reconciliation in the wake of the dictatorship’s human rights abuses. The careful dance to definitively sideline the army from the center of power in the country required prudence, vigilance and nerve. But the men and women from the parties that formed the Concertación knew that their mandate was not confined to guaranteeing the place of democracy in the future of the country. Pinochet and his advisors had structured the economy on the basis of unmitigated neoliberalism, opening the way for the formation of mass amounts of wealth by men like the current president, billionaire Sebastián Piñera, but the new structure provided few meaningful guarantees for most Chileans. In response to the deep inequality created by the model, the revived left under Eduardo Frei, Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet during her first term enacted legislation to stitch together a modest social safety net.
Bachelet is well aware that her new mandate comes from an electorate that no longer fears military intervention and are impatient for greater, more rapid change. The student protest movements of 2011 made it clear that Chileans are reassessing their relationship with government and are skirting the old political parties to speak directly to power. They have high expectations that Bachelet fulfill her pledge to provide high quality public education at all levels, and they expect her to come through on her promise to use her majority in both houses of Congress to make profound revisions in the 1980 constitution that still guides the country.
Although these tasks can be read as enormous challenges, they also offer the opportunity for Bachelet to embody the pivot between the leaders who carefully shaped politics during the transition to democracy and a new set of actors, many of them 30- and 40-somethings, who are set to manage the government ministries and in some cases climb into her top cabinet jobs. She will also be in charge of managing her tenuous alliances with the members of an even younger group, the media savvy leaders of the massive student movement of 2011 who, with her support, achieved posts in the chamber of deputies.
Many moderates have expressed relief that these individuals, including media-star Communists Camila Vallejo and Karol Cariola, accepted Bachelet’s embrace and endorsed institutional politics. Although these two young women occasionally accompanied Michelle Bachelet during her campaign, their allegiance to Bachelet is anything but solid. Careful to maintain their outsider status, even as they take over the comfortable offices and commodious salaries of congressional deputies, these newcomers have sworn to keep one foot in Congress and another in the streets.
Meanwhile, the spring elections at local universities introduced a set of leaders who will take over the student movement and lead its traditional spring protest marches. One of them, the new president of the Universidad de Chile and spokesperson of the coalition of student groups, Melissa Sepúlveda, is an avowed anarchist. In a recent press conference, Sepúlveda commented that the students remain committed to profound change in the educational system and the convocation of a constitutional convention of the kind held not long ago in Venezuela, and they have every intention to express their opinions in the street.
One hopes that Bachelet will bring about change within an atmosphere of fruitful give and take with the new actors on the political scene. If she understands her role amid the tremendous expectations for real change, and inspires trust in Chile’s institutions and political process, Michelle Bachelet could be the architect of the next stage of Chilean political life, one with greater citizen participation and social equality. If so, my brief moment in the voting booth last Sunday would be richly rewarded.