Chile’s ex-leader Bachelet favoured in presidential vote
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Former Socialist president Michelle Bachelet is all but guaranteed to win Chile’s presidential election on Sunday, while the country’s fractured ruling right wing is struggling to save face after a disastrous year.
Her huge popularity is a stark contrast to voters' disappointment over the soap opera of tragedies and disasters plaguing the ruling right-wing coalition, which is riven with internal divisions and is seemingly incapable of keeping pace with the left.
Bachelet was president from 2006 to 2010 and left office riding a wave of popularity (the Chilean constitution does not allow presidents to serve two consecutive terms). She was succeeded by the centre-right National Renewal (RN) party’s Sebastián Piñera.
On June 30, the Chilean left-wing coalition (Socialists, Christian Democrats and Social Democrat Radical Party) gave her 75% backing in a primary for the presidential nomination.
And throughout 2013, Bachelet has been making steady gains in the polls - some of which forecast her taking the 50 percent or more necessary to win Sunday’s first round outright.
But while the left basks in confidence, the country’s opposition conservatives have been beset with failure.
Candidate #1: Golborne scuppered by scandal
Since the beginning of 2013 the right’s “Coalition for Change”, dominated by the centre-right National Renewal party and the ultra-conservative Independent Democratic Union (UDI), has presented voters with three successive candidates.
The first, Laurence Golborne, was seen as Bachelet’s natural rival (even if he was an average of thirty points behind his Socialist opponent) and his nomination seemed assured.
But at the end of April the former minister of mining and energy, who gained huge political capital for his successful handling of the Copiapó mining accident rescue operations, was forced to withdraw following two consecutive public scandals focussing on his business interests.
The Supreme Court fined retailer Cencosud $70 million for "abusively" increasing its supermarket unit's credit card maintenance fees when he was in charge in 2006.
Golborne's candidacy was also marred by accusations that he didn't declare an offshore account registered in the British Virgin Islands.
Candidate #2: Longueira, the depressed ultra-conservative
To Golborne’s credit, he was able to hold together the tenuous relationship between the RP and the UDI while he was still in the running.
But his exit split the ruling coalition wide open. The RN placed its hopes on former defence minister Andrès Allamand, a moderate whom analysts said was the Coalition for Change’s best hope against Bachelet.
The UDI, still smarting after compromising on the 2010 nomination of Sebastián Piñera, put forward conservative elder statesman Pablo Longueira, a favourite of former dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Longueira, who has ties to ultra-conservative Catholic group Opus Dei, has been a member of Chili’s congress for two decades and is a former finance minister. He was the ideal candidate to go up against Allamand, but had little hope of beating Bachelet.
Longueira won the coalition’s June 30 primary by a small margin – 51.37 percent against 48.62 percent.
The UDI was delighted to have beaten the RN and have its own candidate in the running – but disaster soon struck.
On July 17, and with just four months to go before the election, Longueira’s son Juan Pablo contacted the press to announce his father’s withdrawal from the presidential race due to mental health issues.
"His health has been deteriorating as a consequence of diagnosed depression,” he said. “We have witnessed the huge and painful effort that he has made to overcome this situation and respond to the presidential challenge.”
Candidate #3: The UDI-imposed Matthei
Three days later the UDI, without consulting its RN partners, unilaterally nominated Minister of Labour and Social Security Evelyn Matthei on behalf of the coalition.
It would take three weeks of wrangling for the RN to finally accept Matthei and concede to the UDI’s strong-arm tactics.
Since then, Matthei has been working hard to calm the tensions on the right.
Well-versed in the dark mechanisms of Chilean politics, she has an undeniable charisma as well as a political stance that is more inclusive than Longueira’s, a man openly at the ultra-conservative wing of the Chilean right.
Despite this, her candidature offers little hope of electoral success to the Coalition for Change, and 59-year-old Matthei faces an almost insurmountable barrier in Bachelot.
With polls giving Bachelet up to 50 percent of the vote in the first round, her best hope is to buy some time and get through to the second second round, due on December 15, and at the very least save Chilean conservatives some face.