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ELECTIONS-CHILE: Going After the Crucial Female Vote

María Cecilia Espinosa

SANTIAGO, Jan 12 2006 (IPS) - In the final stretch to Chile’s presidential runoff election, governing coalition candidate Michelle Bachelet and her rival, rightwinger Sebastián Piñera, are competing for women’s votes. There are more women than men on the electoral roll, and on Jan. 15, the female vote will play a decisive role in determining who wins and who loses.

For the first time in Chile’s nearly 200 years as an independent nation, a woman looks set to become president. This has given a special twist to these elections, as was evident during the nationally televised debate between Bachelet and Piñera on Jan. 4.

Piñera, a conservative businessman who has the backing of followers of former dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), accused Bachelet, the candidate of the centre-left coalition that has governed the country since the end of the dictatorship, of “playing the victim” because she is a woman.

Bachelet, a socialist paediatrician and former minister of health and defence in the outgoing government of socialist President Ricardo Lagos, has produced TV spots calling on “those who didn’t vote for me, because I am a woman,” pointing out that all women, whatever their social condition, “are used to making twice the effort.”

According to Bachelet, “every family is a kingdom, where the father reigns but the mother rules.” She said she offers “a different kind of leadership, with the sensitivity that comes from looking at things from another angle. In the final analysis, a woman president is a ruler who doesn’t wear a neck-tie.”

Piñera maintains that Bachelet “hasn’t got what it takes” to govern the country. In his campaign advertisements, a poor working woman among his supporters says that Bachelet “won’t understand us any better just because she’s a woman.”

Women account for 4.3 million of Chile’s 8.2 million registered voters. In the first round of voting on Dec. 11, 6.9 million votes were cast. The presidential candidates were Bachelet, Piñera, conservative former mayor Joaquín Lavín, and Tomás Hirsch, the candidate of an alliance of small leftwing parties not represented in Congress.

Bachelet came first, with 45.95 percent of the vote, including 46.99 percent of women’s votes and 44.77 percent of the men’s. Piñera took 25.41 percent of the total, thus qualifying for the runoff. Lavín, who came in third with 23.22 percent of the vote, immediately announced that he supported Piñera in the second round.

Between them, the two rightwingers garnered 48.96 percent of the female vote, but Lavín’s votes will not necessarily be transferred to Piñera. Many of the women – 24.85 percent of whom voted for Lavín – may now prefer Bachelet for gender identity reasons.

The centre-left candidate also now has the backing of the Communist Party, the biggest of the leftwing parties that Hirsch represented on Dec. 11, when he captured 5.4 percent of the total vote and 4.04 percent of women’s votes.

In an interview with IPS, sociologist Guillermo Cumsille, an expert on opinion polls, said he approved of Bachelet’s campaign to woo women voters. She points to the round-the-clock workday of women, which she says “makes them ready for anything,” he commented.

Cumsille ruled out a possible “war of the sexes” because “Piñera has realised that it was a mistake to argue that she (Bachelet) is weak because she’s a woman, or that ‘you just can’t’ vote for a woman. He has backed off from this position because it was damaging him.”

The analyst was sure that the “gender vote” had already been demonstrated in the first round, and said there was no reason to expect a reversal. “Women preferred Michelle Bachelet much more than men did, and I think her campaign can reinforce that vote, especially among the women in low-income sectors who voted for Joaquín Lavín,” he added.

Lily Pérez, a congresswoman for Piñera’s National Renewal Party, told IPS that although “simply being a woman is not enough to win an election, Bachelet has an advantage among women voters since it’s easy for many women to identify with her because of the gender issue.”

But “It’s a myth that Sebastián Piñera couldn’t win round the women voters,” she added. “He has made great strides in getting close to these voters who everyone said were inaccessible to him, especially the poorest women.”

As the author of Piñera’s proposal for a retirement pension for homemakers, she stated that the candidate “has empathised with women’s concerns, such as public safety, crime, health and education.”

Pérez said that although the campaign “is quite ideological and politicised, and people don’t just vote on the basis of gender,” there are also “many independent women, who don’t like any of the political parties, so (their vote) will depend on what the candidates actually do from now until Jan. 15.”

Alejandra Valdés, a feminist researcher for Hexagram Consultants, told IPS that “Piñera’s approach to women is extremely traditional. He highlights families made up of a father, a mother and children, with no recognition of women heads of households.”

Valdés considers the proposal for homemakers’ pensions to be “a demagogic move that doesn’t take into account the reality of existing social assistance pensions in the country, the limitations of present salaries, and the public investment required.”

She acknowledged Bachelet’s appeal to working women and homemakers, but thought she hadn’t sufficiently emphasised the precarious nature of women’s work.

“She has talked about the wage gap, and about women’s inequality in the workplace, but she hasn’t talked about the differences between young and old women’s lives in relation to the present pension system, which is going to make elderly women even poorer,” she said.

Valdés, who is certain that “discrimination and contempt towards women are in the air,” criticised the media for their “inability to tackle gender themes in mass communications, and for being in permanent denial about (Bachelet), which demonstrates the resistance to cultural change that we are seeing.”

She said there was “a difference in evaluation and a clear allusion to the different power resources that a woman would supposedly have compared with a man, so that Michelle Bachelet’s probable fitness for (presidential) office is constantly being underestimated, in association with gender factors.”

A woman “is competing for a position which only men have held up to now, which was unimaginable a couple of years ago. In other words, Bachelet is breaking the so-called glass ceiling for women,” she remarked.

“This election widens women’s participation as citizens, and therefore it widens expectations. In terms of cultural change, I think it will result in more women voting for Bachelet,” Valdés concluded.

María Elena Acuña, an anthropologist and assistant director of the Gender Programme at the University of Chile, told IPS that male chauvinism in this country “is permanent, persistent, and has become more acute, but not only because of the presidential elections.”

According to the expert, “the main feature of this second round is not the competition for women’s votes, but for those of men over 50, who because of their life experience and the construction of their identity in our society, do not have the social resources to accept that women can hold decision-making positions.”

Acuña believes that Piñera is after “the votes of men who would never vote for a woman.”

Given that Chile “is a sexist society, one strategy for attracting those votes is to demonstrate that Bachelet is not properly capable of operating in the public domain simply because she is a woman, quite apart from discussing her ability and intelligence.”

In Acuña’s opinion, “other differences would be of more interest to us, as voters. We should get to a stage where the really important things are the political and ideological proposals and the values propounded by our candidates, not their gender.”

The researcher emphasised that women have made a symbolic advance with a candidate standing for president, in “the public, well-informed, political sphere which had been predominantly masculine, where the stories of the women who managed to enter it were always stories of costs, sacrifices and denials of femininity.”

What is positive is “having a woman who hasn’t emphasised the cost, the sacrifice, or the denial of femininity required to be in politics. She takes her place in full possession of women’s own attributes, showing that we do not need to become honorary men to participate in the public sphere.”

In Chile, Acuña remarked, male chauvinism is “a kind of ideology that permeates everyone, men and women, and not all women in the country are gender-conscious.” Together with the right’s aggressive campaign to retain the votes of women from lower-income sectors, this makes it “more difficult to mobilise women’s votes for a more democratic choice,” she said.

“Some women vote to solve the basic problems of their daily life; others vote in order to recognise the legitimate right of women to participate in public life; and others vote along far more ideological lines, and they would never vote for a woman because they believe that such a woman is anything but conservative,” the researcher explained.

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