In a further boost to South America’s leftward march, Michelle Bachelet won the first round of presidential election in Chile with 47 per cent votes on Sunday. But as the Socialist Party candidate, who ran on the promises of free education and health and high corporate taxes, failed to get more than 50 per cent votes, Ms. Bachelet will now face Evelyn Matthei, the centre-right candidate of the ruling Alliance group, in a run-off on December 15.
According to several polls, Ms. Bachelet, 62, who was Chile’s first woman President from 2006 to 2010, is expected to emerge winner in her second-round contest against Ms. Matthei, who got just 25 per cent of votes on Sunday. Two other independent leftist candidates got 10 per cent votes each.
On Sunday, Chileans also voted to elect 120 deputies in the Lower House of Parliament and 20 of 38 senators. Ms. Bachelet’s alliance currently has 57 deputies and 20 senators. She will need a majority in both chambers to ensure the success of her tax overhaul, including the increase in the corporate tax rate from 20 to 25 per cent and the end of a 30-year incentive to reinvest profits.
The Sunday election shows the Chileans want greater social equality amid the country’s economic boom. As the election was seen as a referendum on the free-market path of President Sebastián Pinera, a billionaire, the Chileans seem to have voted for a President who focuses more on social welfare programmes.
In her campaign, Ms. Bachelet promised $15 billion in extra spending over four years in response to massive protests over the quality of schooling and hospitals that helped drive President Pinera’s approval rating to a record low. “Today the Chileans voted for a tax reform that will allow for better education and health care,” Mr. Bachelet said on Sunday. “We are going to have a decisive and convincing victory in December,” she added.
In sharp contrast to Ms. Bachelet’s promises, Ms Matthei campaigned for freer market policies that she claimed have made Chile the wealthiest country in Latin America. Under Mr. Pinera, Latin America’s richest economy saw unemployment fall to the lowest in at least 30 years, but his popularity too fell drastically due to rise in income inequality.
Though Ms. Bachelet looks all set to return as President, she may face new challenges this time. Chile has undergone drastic changes since Ms. Bachelet left office in 2010 to take up a United Nations post. During four years of Mr. Pinera’s presidency, the country witnessed huge demonstrations, with tens of thousands taking to the streets with demands of free education, environmental protection and better rights for worker. As a result of those protests, a new crop of leaders have emerged in Chile. Several of these new leaders were candidates for congressional seats on Sunday, either as independents or on the Communist Party ticket.
The presidential campaign, which ended on Thursday, was the most polarised run for office since the 1988 plebiscite that forced military dictator Augusto Pinochet to step down in 1990. For the first time since the plebiscite, a presidential campaign’s political agenda was strongly marked by initiatives such as changing the Constitution, overhauling the tax system, offering free education and re-nationalising the copper industry, among other things.
In all, nine official candidates were in the race for President, three of them women. The incumbent, Mr. Pinera, could not run because the Constitution bars Presidents from serving consecutive terms.