Headlines

ELECTIONS-CHILE: Unconventional Rivals Head for Final Showdown

Gustavo González

SANTIAGO, Jan 13 2006 (IPS) - A 54-year-old Socialist doctor who is a former political prisoner and the daughter of a general will face off on Sunday with a successful 56-year-old rightwing Harvard-trained economist and businessman from a Christian Democratic family, in a bid to become the next president of Chile.

A 54-year-old Socialist doctor who is a former political prisoner and the daughter of a general will face off on Sunday with a successful 56-year-old rightwing Harvard-trained economist and businessman from a Christian Democratic family, in a bid to become the next president of Chile.

The centre-left governing coalition candidate Michelle Bachelet, who is widely expected to win the runoff election, is anything but typical, not only because she looks set to become the first woman president of a culturally conservative, sexist country, but also because her profile and career do not fit the pattern of a professional politician.

Socialist lawmaker Carlos Montes, spokesman for Bachelet’s campaign team, told IPS that during the campaign the candidate “has demonstrated charisma, a great sense of social participation and strong ties with the public. She is able to take in and build opinions with others, and put together teams.”

Piñera, meanwhile, claims the merit of having swiftly and unexpectedly – and perhaps only fleetingly – been catapulted into the role of the leader of a rightwing alliance that is trying hard to distance itself from the image of former dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) and to seize control of the government from the Concertación por la Democracia coalition that has been in power since March 1990.

Ignacio Illanes, director of the political programme at Chile’s Freedom and Development Institute, a conservative think-tank, told IPS that Piñera’s most outstanding features are his “capacity for management and work, which is recognised by everyone, from the left to the right,” as well as his tolerance and broad-mindedness in the political arena.


Bachelet, who was born in Santiago on Sep. 29, 1951, never dreamt as a young woman that one day she could become the first woman president of a country where women did not win the right to vote until 1949.

In 1971, as she began to study medicine at the University of Chile, she became active in the Socialist Party youth. It was a time of hope and uncertainty for the leftist government of President Salvador Allende, also a Socialist physician, who headed up the Popular Unity alliance of Marxists, Social Democrats and left-leaning Christian Democrats.

Bachelet’s father, Air Force Gen. Alberto Bachelet, was called on by Allende in 1972 to oversee the “supply and price councils” that the government set up to control and allot foodstuffs and other essential products with the aim of counteracting the shortages and speculation that were deliberately provoked to destabilise the government.

Gen. Bachelet, one of the symbols of military respect for the constitution along with Gen. Carlos Prats, died in March 1974 in a prison cell in the Air Force War Academy as the result of a heart attack brought on by the torture to which he was subjected by his fellow officers. (Former army chief Prats and his wife were also killed in 1974, by a car-bomb in Buenos Aires).

In January 1975, Michelle Bachelet and her mother, archaeologist Ángela Jeria, were arrested by agents of the de facto regime’s secret police – the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA) – and taken to the Villa Grimaldi concentration camp, where the then medical student was able to assist other female political prisoners who were suffering the effects of torture.

Mother and daughter were then transferred to Cuatro Álamos, another torture camp. Altogether they spent a month behind bars, undergoing interrogation and mistreatment, until they were sent into exile to Australia. From there they moved to the former German Democratic Republic.

In East Germany, Bachelet met and married Chilean architect Jorge Dávalos, with whom she had two children – Sebastián, who was born in Leipzig and is now 26, and Francisca, 21, who was born in Santiago after the couple returned to Chile in 1979.

Bachelet, who had continued her medical studies in East Germany, graduated from medical school in Chile in 1982 and specialised in pediatrics and public health. In the early 1990s, separated (divorce was still illegal in Chile) from Dávalos, she got involved in a three-year relationship with epidemiologist Antonio Henríquez, the father of her youngest daughter, Sofía, who is now 12.

In the dying days of the dictatorship and the first few years of the transition to democracy, Bachelet worked with a non-governmental organisation that helped children and adolescents who were traumatised by the forced disappearance of their parents or other abuses by the dictatorship. She also took part in the Health Ministry’s HIV/AIDS prevention programmes.

In addition, she pursued a graduate degree in the Armed Forces’ National Academy of Political and Strategic Studies, and won one of the 37 scholarships granted to Latin Americans to attend the Inter-American Defence College in Washington, D.C.

Thanks to these credentials, in addition to being elected in 1999 to the Socialist Party Political Commission, Bachelet was appointed by newly incumbent President Ricardo Lagos as the health minister in his first cabinet on Mar. 11, 2000.

And on Jan. 7, 2002, she became one of the first women in Latin American history to be named minister of defence.

Lagos released Bachelet from her ministerial duties on Oct. 1, 2004 so that she could devote herself fully to the presidential campaign trail. Opinion polls already showed her as the clear favourite to lead up a fourth consecutive centre-left coalition government, and her path to nomination as the coalition’s presidential candidate was cleared by the withdrawal from the race of Foreign Minister Soledad Alvear of the Christian Democratic Party.

“Michelle Bachelet’s biography alone is a ‘plus’. She is a woman who has lived through one of the most tragic events in the country’s recent history, in the first person, and faced situations like the death of her father, the repression aimed at her personally and her family, and life in exile,” Socialist Senator Jaime Gazmari commented to IPS.

“She was also an extremely active participant in the recuperation of democracy, and has managed to not become stuck in the past, focussed on nostalgia or revenge, but looks instead towards the future, and towards national reconciliation, while keeping memory alive,” added Gazmari.

“I am going to be the first woman president of Chile,” maintains Bachelet, convinced that this Sunday she will emerge triumphant over two significant barriers posed by Chilean society: the gender discrimination faced by women in “machista” Latin American culture in general, and the stigma of being a declared agnostic in this predominantly Catholic nation, a fact heavily stressed by her right-wing opponents.

Piñera, considered an “outsider”, emerged on the scene unexpectedly when the National Renovation Party (PRN) announced his candidacy last May. Up until that point, Joaquín Lavín of the Independent Democratic Union (UDI) had been viewed as the “natural leader” and single candidate of the right.

An economist who studied at the Catholic University of Chile and subsequently earned a PhD in Harvard, where he also taught, Piñera joined the race as part of a strategy that proved successful. The underlying theory was that two right-wing candidates – with Piñera himself appealing to more centrist voters – would prevent Bachelet from winning an outright victory with an absolute majority in the first round of voting.

The theory proved to be a valid one. On Dec. 11, this billionaire businessman who introduced credit cards to Chile and controls LAN-Chile airlines and the Chilevisión TV network, pulled ahead of Lavín to earn the second-largest share of votes and the right to face Bachelet in the second round. And in so doing, he raised hopes among the Chilean right for its first presidential electoral victory since 1958.

The son of engineer José Piñera, who served as Chilean ambassador to Belgium and the United Nations under Christian Democratic President Eduardo Frei Montalva (1964-70), Piñera has taken pains to appeal to more moderate sectors by stressing his origins in a “middle-class family” that raised him with “Christian humanist values.”

Married to Cecilia Morel and a father of four, he is also the brother of José Piñera, the Pinochet regime minister who spearheaded the so-called “modernisation” that included the privatisation of social security, health care and education and the re-opening of the mining sector to foreign capital, after the nationalisation of Chile’s rich copper resources in 1971.

In 1988, he reportedly voted against Pinochet in the Oct. 5 presidential plebiscite. But one year later, while running for senator as a candidate of the PRN-UDI right-wing alliance, he served as campaign manager for Hernán Büchi, the presidential candidate hand-picked by the former dictator who was defeated by Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin in the December 1989 general elections.

Described as a “hyperactive workaholic”, Piñera has faced what could be interpreted as a permanent veto on the part of the UDI, which frustrated his efforts to seek the blessing of Pinochet as a right-wing presidential hopeful in 1994. In 2001, he withdrew his candidacy for senator, stepping aside for retired admiral and close Pinochet associate Jorge Arancibia.

Despite the frictions of the past, Senator Hernán Larraín of the UDI sees Piñera as the incarnation of “the idea of generating a broader political alliance, incorporating new sectors to forge a new majority.” And there has been no better time for this than now, when the ruling centre-left coalition is dominated by a “socialist axis” that has shoved aside the PDC, Larraín remarked to IPS.

 
Republish | | Print |

Related Tags

Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ELECTIONS-CHILE: Unconventional Rivals Head for Final Showdown

Gustavo González

SANTIAGO, Jan 13 2006 (IPS) - A 54-year-old Socialist doctor who is a former political prisoner and the daughter of a general will face off on Sunday with a successful 56-year-old rightwing Harvard-trained economist and businessman from a Christian Democratic family, in a bid to become the next president of Chile.
(more…)

 
Republish | | Print |

Related Tags