Why the second government of Michelle Bachelet is considered the most important in decades in Chile

This Sunday the businessman Sebastian Pinera was sworn in as president of Chile after winning the elections last December. He succeeds socialist Michelle Bachelet, who claims to go “through the wide door.”

“I’m leaving happy, I’m leaving satisfied,” he said this week. “There are things we can not do, but for many people, Chile is a better country today than four or eight years ago,” he added.

In the last decade, many Chileans took to the streets to ask for reforms, proving that they were not as conservative as their political class. Bachelet wanted to respond to that desire for change and in the process raised blisters in the old elite.

His critics, in any case, assure that he goes after four years of scandals of corruption, improvisation and economic slowdown.

His most clear opponent, Sebastian Pinera, defeated the governing candidate, Alejandro Guillier, by 10 points of difference.

For many, that defeat was clear proof of Bachelet’s general disapproval.

In fact, the president finished her second term with an approval of just over 40%, much lower than that obtained in her first government (2006-2010), which ended with about 80% favorable opinions.

Beyond these figures, few dispute that Bachelet’s second term has been the most transformative in Chile’s recent history, due to his reforms to a model of a country that continued to carry the legacy of the military regime of the 1980s.

Chile was, for example, one of the six nations in the world in which abortion was totally illegal until the outgoing government managed to approve its decriminalization in three causes despite the pressure of the part of the political class and the Church.

Reforms like this one made Bachelet, the first woman president of the country, a distinguished and awarded figure abroad.

Progressive and ambitious program

Bachelet, 66, won the elections in 2013 with a progressive program that promised a “Chile for all.”

“We have to carry out more profound reforms if we really want to defeat inequality

In our country,” he said when launching his candidacy.

The candidate then proposed to meet the demands of the thousands of Chileans, especially students, who had taken to the streets in massive and unprecedented demonstrations during the first government of Pinera.

His program focused on three axes: taxes, education, and Constitution.

And somehow, in the three areas Bachelet achieved significant changes, although none of them is free of shadows.

Tax and education reforms

In a country where large companies were exempt from paying taxes on their total income, Bachelet was able to pass a tax reform to increase state revenues at the expense of the private sector.

The destination of these taxes was clear from the beginning: to finance the free education.“In reality, the tax (reform) was only meant to finance education, it was instrumental, it was not a fundamental change,” says Ascanio Cavallo, a Chilean analyst, journalist and political scientist.

The educational reform sought to guarantee basic, secondary and higher education for the millions of Chileans who were excluded by a fundamentally private and expensive system.

“Despite a couple of things that were missing, it was possible to move the fence in the educational field and the door was opened for new and better reforms,” says political scientist Kenneth Bunker.

“In that sense, I think it was a very successful reform,” says the academic from the Central University of Chile.

Cavallo, on the other hand, maintains that the law “was defective because the money estimated does not reach for a universal free education, although it is for the poorest, which is not a small thing to say”.

“In reality,” he says, “it was very difficult to achieve the universal free education.”

Many believe that the expectations that Bachelet sowed at the beginning of her government were so high that when they were carried out in a limited way -as it usually happens in politics- some were dissatisfied.

Change of Constitution

Perhaps that was also what happened with the reform of the Constitution, a Magna Carta that although it has been extensively reformed since 1990, has its origin in the one approved during the last military regime.

Last Monday, five days after giving power, Bachelet announced on national television that the next day would present to Congress the draft of a new Constitution.

“There are no real options for the project to be approved because with the change of government the priorities will be others and I think the announcement was more a salute to the flag to comply with the program,” says Bunker.

“There was a constituent moment where people mobilized, resources were spent and people had hope, but the project failed because the government coalition fragmented,” explains the specialist, who speaks of this as “the great failure of the Bachelet government and a reflection of the hurry that ends. ”

Cavallo, on the other hand, maintains that the constituent process is “what he would rescue the most from the government”, because “it was achieved, through the constitutional councils that the people understood the need to change the Constitution”.

However, he adds, the failure of the approval shows that this government “was very affected by a fragile and incompetent coalition”.

Local media have reported that the relationship between Bachelet and his coalition, the New Majority, ended up very deteriorated.

Now it is up to Piñera and a Congress without a clear majority to see what is done with the constitutional project presented by Bachelet, which, among other things, contemplates equal pay between men and women.

The new president has said he is ready to have “a democratic debate” on the issue.

A government of profound change

Some believe that the governments that succeeded Augusto Pinochet’s military regime were not very different from each other and did not make the changes demanded by a country that sought to overcome the authoritarianism of the past.

Therefore, the Bachelet government is seen as the most important leap that Chile has made in the consolidation of democracy.

However, the balance made by many Chileans in the outgoing government is marked by the cases of long-standing corruption uncovered by the press, one of which involved the president’s son, who was finally exonerated from influence-peddling charges.

Its defenders, however, say that precisely these scandals were known thanks to the fundamental changes that Bachelet promoted.

One of them was the abolition of the binominal political system, which benefited the traditional parties.

Other reforms considered transformative were the approval of the civil union for people of the same sex – in a country where being a homosexual was illegal until 1999 – and abortion in three special cases.

Now Pinera assumes power with the promise of returning economic growth to a country that has slowed down in recent years.

Few believe that the new president, a successful businessman more pragmatic than ideological, tries to throw back Bachelet’s reforms, not only because he admits the relevance of some of them, but because Chilean presidents do not usually make a clean slate.

Pinera is expected to start implementing policies to encourage investment and guarantee security in the south of the country, where the Mapuche conflict is developing.

We will have to let time pass to evaluate the reforms promoted during the presidency of Bachelet and conclude how successful his government was.


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