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POLITICS-CHILE: Women Assess Bachelet’s Record

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Apr 5 2007 (IPS) - Chilean President Michelle Bachelet is being showered with criticism from both left and right over her ability to govern. But she is being unfairly condemned for the mistakes of others, like the crises affecting parties in the governing coalition and “machista” or male chauvinist attitudes that exaggerate her every slip, Chilean women say.

Bachelet, 55, has just carried out her second cabinet change since she took office a year ago.

“Women’s organisations are concerned, because we believe that (the president) is being criticised because she is a woman, and not because of her track record in government, although this is not said explicitly,” activist Paulina Weber told IPS.

“In spite of their mistakes, none of the other three presidents of the Concertación (the centre-left coalition that has governed Chile since 1990) were ever treated like she has been,” said Weber, head of the non-governmental Movement for the Emancipation of Chilean Women (MEMCH).

The Concertación is made up of the Christian Democrat Party (PDC), Socialist Party (PS), Party For Democracy (PPD) and Radical Social Democratic Party (PRSD).

According to Weber, an outspoken critic of the Concertación, “Bachelet has performed well and capably in office. When she has needed to be firm, she has held her ground. For example, she decided not to build the Chacao bridge (that would join the southern island of Chiloé with the mainland) because it was financially non-viable, and she chose not to give (former dictator Augusto) Pinochet a state funeral when he died,” in December 2006.

The vice president of the non-governmental Humanas Corporation, Carolina Carrera, told IPS that “crises and social conflicts are to be expected in a democracy. They show that citizens are able to voice their demands.”

“I would say that the internal problems of the PDC and the PPD have clearly not been beneficial for the government, because these internal conflicts have tended to spill over into the government itself, which should not happen,” she said.

The latest conflict involved disturbances in the capital on Mar. 29, when thousands of high school and university students took to the streets on Young Combatants’ Day, which commemorates two leftwing brothers who were killed during the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990).

The students were particularly protesting against the city’s new public transport system, Transantiago, which was inaugurated on Feb. 10, with serious shortcomings.

“The government has no authority,” mayor of Santiago Raúl Alcaíno, linked to the rightwing opposition, stated emphatically. Public property suffered thousands of dollars’ worth of damage during the protests, and 800 people were arrested.

Carrera said, “The Mar. 29 demonstration was incited by the media as part of their own agenda. Never before had they given so much space to Young Combatants’ Day. They tried to link two things that had nothing in common: Combatants’ Day and people’s dissatisfaction with Transantiago.”

Responsibility for the design of the Transantiago system lay with former president Ricardo Lago (2000-2006). However, Bachelet is being blamed for putting the plan into effect without having the necessary infrastructure and technology in place.

Under pressure from the Concertación and the rightwing opposition alliance, Bachelet dismissed the ministers of transport, secretary general of the presidency, justice and defence on Mar. 26, ending the gender parity in the cabinet which she introduced upon taking office on Mar. 11, 2006. There are now 13 men and nine women in the cabinet.

But the cabinet reshuffle ordered by the socialist president three days before the protests, in an attempt to defuse the conflict, did not cool the demonstrators’ ardour.

“My reading is that at this juncture, the president needed ministers with the political weight to keep the parties in order. Given the circumstances, she had to sacrifice gender parity in the cabinet, a principle dear to her heart,” Margarita María Errázuriz, head of Comunidad Mujer which is an organisation of professional leaders promoting women’s participation in the labour market, told IPS.

“Her action doesn’t mean that women are less capable, but rather that there are few women who are influential in politics. That is because women have so far been excluded from public decision-making,” she added.

An article in The Economist, an influential conservative British weekly, said: “The new political co-ordinator (minister secretary general of the Presidency), José Antonio Viera-Gallo, is a former Socialist senator who has the political experience, contacts and intellectual weight that Ms. Bachelet herself lacks. Some hope that Mr. Viera-Gallo will assume the role of de facto prime minister.”

The latest nationwide survey by the Adimark polling firm, published on Mar. 30, indicated that support for the Bachelet administration had declined from 49.3 percent to 45.6 percent over the space of a month.

The poll also found that the president’s personal attributes commanded a high level of approval. Among the interviewees, 75.7 percent said she was “loved by Chileans,” 72.9 percent said she was “respected,” 66.3 percent that she was “credible,” 61.9 percent that she was capable of dealing with crisis situations, and 61.2 percent that she had “leadership qualities.”

“People who say that she’s an ineffective leader do so in terms of their own concept of what leadership means. Bachelet lacks leadership among politicians, but she is a great leader among the people. These complaints arise from the cultural change that her presence in the government implies, her relative independence from political parties, and the threat that her way of making decisions poses to the power structure,” Errázuriz said.

“Governing has been difficult for her, but I couldn’t say whether this is a consequence of the process the country is experiencing, or whether it’s really about the president’s failings,” she said.

Both Weber and Errázuriz pointed to a series of advances achieved in the first year of the Bachelet administration, many of which benefit women, such as the draft law sent to Congress to reform the pension system.

“She is clearly capable of governing,” as demonstrated by the fulfilment of her campaign promises, the draft laws she has pressed forward urgently, her standing in Latin America, and the cabinet reshuffles she has carried out, said Carrera.

Astrid Mandel, a 26-year-old Chilean woman, told IPS that “Bachelet does have leadership qualities, authority, and is capable of governing. What’s happening is that Chilean politicians are ‘machista’ and are on the look-out for any excuse to criticise her, to hurt her image and remove her from power.”

“I love her image, her integrity and her confidence. I’m happy that she’s our president. However, I tend to disagree with her government because the Concertación is still tied to some policies that are unacceptable, for instance in regard to indigenous peoples and the environment,” said Mandel, who has a degree in anthropology.

Virginia Rossel, a 51-year-old homemaker who does not support the Concertación, said that Bachelet “is an excellent person, with integrity, but she hasn’t been able to accomplish her government programme because she has not been properly backed up” by her ministers. In addition, rightwing critics “make her out to be worse than she really is,” she said.

“The students have not allowed her to govern. I think she should have used more strongarm tactics. On Mar. 29, I would have given more powers to the Carabineros (the military police),” she commented to IPS.

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