As Chilean socialist Michelle Bachelet takes office as president on March 11, she’ll be struggling to maintain a balance between change and continuity. In a country where the political and economic legacies of the Pinochet dictatorship still reverberate, and with continental politics shifting leftward, just how much she leans in one direction or another will be of considerable concern.
Bachelet, 54, won a runoff election on a platform emphasizing education, employment, equal opportunities, pension reform and creation of what she called a “broad social protection system.” But it is the persona and personal history of Chile’s first woman president that mark a radical departure from most of Chile’s political class. Bachelet, an agnostic and a single mother of three, doesn’t conform to the traditonal mold of this socially conservative country, although she in fact reflects Chile’s real society, where 30 percent of households are run by women and more than half of all children are born out of wedlock.
Bachelet’s twenty-member cabinet is half women, something she pledged during her campaign and that, she says, “reflects a new style of government that combines new faces with experience.” The prospects for profound social change and reform, however, require something more than symbolism. “Without a doubt, the gender issue is a historical change, but we still can’t say how much this will improve the situation of women,” says Ricardo Israel, director of the International Center for the Quality of Democracy. “Being a woman isn’t enough, just as it wasn’t enough for Bolivia’s Sánchez de Lozada to have an indigenous vice president or to have a worker in the Brazilian presidency.”
The obstacles to significant reform of Chilean society–still plagued with one of the most unequal economies in the hemisphere–remain formidable. Bachelet will lead the fourth consecutive administration of the center-left Concertación Democrática alliance, composed primarily of the Socialist and Christian Democratic parties. In power since the 1990 restoration of democracy, the Concertación government has been marked by what some critics call excessive caution. The Concertación has shifted ideologically to the center of the political spectrum, and its successive presidents have sought only minor reforms to the free-market economy imposed during the Pinochet dictatorship.
With skyrocketing copper prices now pumping tens of millions into the state treasury, expectations among average Chileans are high that Bachelet will plow this bonanza into major social spending programs. Bachelet has announced thirty-six measures for her first 100 days in areas including employment, education and health. In the past, Concertación administrations argued that reform plans were short-circuited by conservative domination of congress, but Bachelet will have no such excuse: In December her allied parties won majorities in both chambers for the first time.