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Story Publication logo November 25, 2013

Chilean Voters Show Little Enthusiasm for Bachelet, Other Candidates

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Four decades after the military overthrew Chile’s democratically-elected government, the past...

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Wearing a pink jacket and her trademark pearl necklace, Michelle Bachelet delivered an upbeat assessment the evening of Sunday, November 17 to hundreds of cheering, flag-waving supporters at Santiago's San Francisco hotel of her prospects in the second round of the Chilean presidential elections on December 15.

"We're going to have a decisive and convincing victory in December," declared Bachelet, who is seeking to become the first two-time president in Chile since the country returned to democracy in 1990. "A victory that supports the program of needed transformations that we've built with the people in these months!"

Her optimism was understandable. Having garnered 47 percent of the vote, Bachelet needed just three additional percentage points to triumph over childhood friend and fellow daughter of an Air Force general Evelyn Matthei, the candidate of the conservative Independent Democratic Union party. Picking up those votes seemed highly possible, if not probable, from supporters of the seven other left-leaning and populists candidates eliminated in Sunday's voting.

But serious questions remain about the degree to which Bachelet would be able to translate victory into ambitious goals. Her New Majority coalition did not secure the number of senatorial and deputy seats necessary to create a new constitution, one of her campaign's central planks.

Perhaps even more troubling for the state of Chilean democracy were conversations with voters throughout Santiago-Chileans of differing generations, neighborhoods, sexual orientations, political allegiances and social classes-in the days leading up to the vote and on Sunday that revealed profound skepticism toward, if not outright disbelief in, elected officials' ability to bring about the changes that many feel are necessary to help the country advance. For nearly 7 million of Chileans, the choice between Bachelet's center-left coalition that has won every election in Chile since 1990 except the 2010 contest, a right wing that went through two candidates between settling on Matthei or one of the many other left-wing candidates was an unpalatable one.

Bachelet's Silent Strategy

Bachelet's primary strategy during her eight months of campaigning appeared to be to say as little as possible to keep her ideologically diverse coalition intact-as opposed to 2006, the Communist Party was part of it-and to count on her popularity with the people to propel her to victory.

The new alliance appeared to have pragmatic, but not ideological, roots on the Communist side.

Felix Cabrera, a longtime Communist who was working as an apoderado de mesa, or party advocate, stood in front a school in the Independencia neighborhood. A poster of Bachelet and former student leader Karol Cariola covered much of the wall behind him. Cabrera said that the 2011 student movement had pushed issues like a free education that the Communists had advocated for years into more mainstream political dialogue.

"Now is a moment," he said. "Bachelet is a way to the change that we need."

"We learned and we adjusted," he said later.

In addition to advocating for a free education, Bachelet pushed for a new constitution to replace the one passed during the dictatorship and made emotionally potent public appearances with her mother at memory sites during the build up to the fortieth anniversary of the Pinochet coup on September 11. The former president flicked aside criticisms of her administration's slow response to the devastating earthquake in the waning days of her presidency in Feb. 2010, held a large end-of-campaign event in Concepcion, one of the hardest-hit areas, and issued bland statements during one of the two televised debates like, "We want a Chile that gives opportunity to everyone."

The provision of opportunity through government programs was a dividing point for Chileans toward Bachelet.

Many conservatives like Jorge Riquelme, a doctor, felt that these initiatives have led to a culture of dependency. "Bachelet was the worst president in 30 years," Riquelme said. "You need to teach the people fishing. What she did was give them fish." But others, like Pamela Betancur, a longtime resident in a campamento, or shantytown, in the La Florida neighborhood, said that Bachelet's support of women through governmental projects played a factor in her decision to vote for her again.

Matthei's Struggles

Matthei had her own struggles.

After an initial assertion that Bachelet was beatable, she failed to unite the right-wing parties behind her. In September President Sebastian Pinera, also a conservative, said that Matthei's voting "Yes" in the 1988 plebiscite that would have kept Pinochet in power was a mistake. Shortly before the election Matthei had to contend with statements by prominent conservative Carlos Larrain that the alliance should have stuck with primary winner Lawrence Golborne, rather than select her. Polls published in advance of Sunday's vote indicated that she was in danger of becoming the first right-wing candidate in 20 years not to make the runoff.

Monica Cerda, a journalist who was voting with her 92-year-old mother and sister at the San Pedro Nolasco school in the wealthy Vitacura neighborhood, said Matthei's difficulties were not limited to her, but rather were symptomatic of longer-term problems within the Chilean right.

"It's always been like this," she said, adding that conservative politicians think in an individual, rather than a collective manner. "They are dedicated to their jobs. The left are professional politicians."

Cerda voted, but millions of eligible Chileans did not.

Only about half of the nation's 13.5 million eligible voters stayed home for Sunday's vote, according to Servel, the nation's electoral service. This was the first post-dictatorship presidential election in which voting was voluntary.

Voters Tired of Politicians' Unkept Promises

Voters expressed their weariness with politicians' unfulfilled promises over and over throughout the day.

This was the message from ACES, or the Coordinating Assembly of Secondary Students, a group of about two dozen secondary school students who took over Bachelet headquarters on Election Day. In between chanting and jumping up and down, spokeswoman Isabel Salgado said, "We don't believe in the right wing or in the Concertacion; we only believe in the in the student movement."

Alexis Hernandez, 23, said young people's disaffection with politicians extended beyond staunchly left-wing students. "The young people don't believe in the right, the center or the left that there's going to be a radical change that they promised," said Hernandez, who estimated that at most 40 percent of young people were going to participate in the election.

Adriana Hortensia Munoz, 88, shared the sentiment. "I'm doing this for my children and grandchildren," she declared before decrying the faults of both major parties. "Never with the right, disappointed with the Concetacion.

"We need a change," Munoz stated, walking stick in her left hand as she walked to a waiting grandchild in a cluttered car.

For close to 50,000 more voters, like Catalina Alfaro, the alternative came in not filling in a presidential choice.

"I am not voting for anyone, only for senators," said Alfaro, an elementary school teacher who voted along with her two sisters in the Independencia neighborhood. "They are pure blah, blah, all the candidates."

One potential bright spot was the loosening of ideological ties binding some voters to a specific party. Cab driver Claudio Contreras said that although he voted for Bachelet in 2006, he liked how Pinera had run the country. He and his family had spoken and decided that they would back Matthei in Sunday´s election.

Bus driver Antonio Marin not only spoke with his family, he took them with him to vote. Clad in a green shirt with blue shorts, he brought his 11-year-old daughter and his one-year-old grandson with him to the polls in Independencia. Marin explained that the family evaluated the candidate, not the party, before deciding who to vote for in the election.

Contreras estimated that about 50 to 55 percent of the people he drives said they are open to considering the candidate who they think will be the best for Chile, rather than the party they had supported in the past. "It´s important not to be married to anyone in politics,¨ he said.

Leonor Lopez fit into the category Contreras described.

Speaking in the kitchen of the house of a pair of doctors in the wealthy Vitacura neighborhood, where she was working as a maid, Lopez explained that, like Contreras and his family, she had supported Bachelet in 2006. But her satisfaction with Pinera's performance led her to decide to vote for Matthei.

While some like successful businessmen Jorge Reizin questioned whether Matthei would match Pinera's vigor, if elected, Lopez thought she could exceed him.

"Bachelet already was president; the government of Pinera is good," she said. "As a woman she has a strong force. She can be better than Pinera. She's a fighter."

Still, many of those who did vote appeared to do so with limited expectations. "All the politicians are the same," said Gloria Sanchez, 58, who has owned a fruit stand in the Providencia neighborhood since 1986. "They all go out to eat or asleep in the Congress and do nothing. I like to vote so that I can talk about it afterward. If you don't vote, you don't have any right (to talk). I tell that to my nephew and grandson."





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