By Javier Couso
On March 11, 2014, Chile experienced a highly symbolic political development when the newly elected head of the senate, Isabel Allende (daughter of the late Salvador Allende), swore in Michelle Bachelet as the new president of Chile. This powerful scene — in a country in which women are still underrepresented in the political, economic, and cultural arenas — was also politically significant, since it marked the first time in a century that a leader was elected twice to the country’s highest office.
In the weeks since taking office, Bachelet has surprised both political analysts and regular Chileans by strictly adhering to her ambitious program. Indeed, less than three weeks into her second administration, she sent congress a bill introducing a tax reform aimed at financing her education program. The bill, which aims to increase the taxes paid by big corporations from 20 to 25 percent of their annual revenues as well as strengthening the enforcement powers of Chile’s tax authority, is expected to increase government spending by 3 percentage points of the country’s gross domestic product, which is what the educational reform is expected to cost.
President Bachelet’s decisiveness in her first few weeks in office has had a profound impact. First, her determination to fulfill her campaign promise to introduce significant changes in Chile’s current socio-economic model has increased her credibility among the large portion of the population who had become skeptical of politicians in recent years. Second, her focus on enacting the platform she campaigned on has provided a sense of mission and direction to her coalition, the Nueva Mayoría, which comprises a vast spectrum of political parties, from the Christian Democrats in the center to the Communists on the left. Lastly, the assertiveness of Bachelet’s first month in government has left Chile’s highly ideological right-wing parties confused to the point of paralysis, since they thought that her campaign promises were just a rhetorical move to prevail in the presidential election.
It is, of course, too early to know if Bachelet’s coalition will be able to deliver the congressional votes needed to pass the aforementioned tax reform bill and then move on to successfully tackle the even more demanding educational and constitutional reforms that complete the three pillars of her program. The key factor explaining this uncertainty is a political environment dominated by the total control that Chile’s corporate powers have over the country’s mainstream media. In the last few weeks the media has launched a relentless attack on the tax reform that might scare away some Christian Democratic legislators, thus compromising this crucial first step in Bachelet’s plans. Having said this, Bachelet’s highly effective management in the aftermath of the 8.2 Richter-scale earthquake that struck Northern Chile on April 2 has provided her with a great deal of credibility in the eyes of the bulk of the population, something which no doubt will help her weather the storm of criticism that Chile’s biased media has created.
In sum, it is clear that Michelle Bachelet’s second term in office will be very different from her first time at La Moneda, both in terms of the direction of her administration (this time, with deep transformations in sight) and in terms of the political environment she will face (a hostile media and a more diverse coalition). Bachelet is consciously taking a big political risk out of her intimate conviction that Chile desperately needs to change a political model that is still hostile to the wishes of democratic majorities, an economic model that is too dependent on the mere export of commodities, and a social model that is too dependent on markets for the provision of important social rights.
Javier Couso is a professor of Public Law and the director of the Constitutional Law Program at the Universidad Diego Portales in Chile.