On Tuesday, March 11, in her first act as senate president, Senator Isabel Allende will place a red, white and blue sash over the shoulder of Michelle Bachelet, officially making her the first re-elected president of Chile’s modern era.
It will be a moment loaded with symbolism of the country’s struggle to break the shackles of a recent dictatorship and age-old traditions of patriarchy and machismo. Both Allende and Bachelet lost their fathers in the days following the country’s September 11, 1973 military coup
Salvador Allende, Senator Allende’s father, was the first democratically-elected Marxist head of state in Latin America. He took his own life in the presidential palace, rather than submit to the military forces that bombed La Moneda palace and maintained power for the next 17 years with a reign of terror and unimaginable atrocity. His daughter escaped with her life and was forced into exile for the duration of the dictatorship. She returned to pursue a long-standing and distinguished career as a parliamentarian and champion of progressive causes.
Brigadier General Alberto Bachelet died from torture at the hands of his former military colleagues for remaining loyal to President Allende. His daughter was captured and imprisoned before she, too, made it out of the country and lived in exile.
Michelle Bachelet returned to Chile to practice medicine and eventually went on to become health minister, then the first female defense minister in Latin America and, later, Chile’s first female president. She left office with an enviable 84 percent approval rating. During the Piñera years, she became the inaugural head of UN Women, earning the praise and esteem of world leaders. She returned, triumphant, to sweep first the primaries, followed by the first round of general elections and finally the runoff vote.
But these potent and evocative narratives obscure another reality—just how difficult this term will be for Bachelet.The country that she inherits in 2014 is not the same Chile that she handed over to outgoing President Sebastián Piñera in 2010. It is a country rocking with rediscovered and reorganized social movements. And, given these emboldened demands for change, Bachelet’s popularity may only exacerbate what will be one of her greatest challenges—the weight of great expectations.
Four years ago, when Bachelet brought an end to her first term in office by passing the presidential sash to Piñera, the country shook—literally. Chile had just been hit by a devastating 8.8-magnitude earthquake and strong aftershocks persisted up to, and during, the ceremony in Congress.
During Piñera’s term, that sense of shifting foundations went from the physical to the metaphoric. His was the first Right-leaning administration since the return to democracy. But perhaps more than the Chilean electorate voted the center-right billionaire in, it voted the left-leaning Concertaciónalliance out of office after 20 years, frustrated with its inability to deliver on the promise of a more equal and fair society.
With Piñera in office, students, environmentalists and organized labor were under no illusions, and took to the streets in the hundreds of thousands. Social upheaval spread. Far-flung cities were shut down by protesters, and the smouldering embers of Indigenous conflict flared. Whether it was for the universal right to quality education, improvements in regional infrastructure, Aboriginal land claims or dignified working conditions, diverse sectors of the population began demanding change. Loudly.
Now, as Piñera returns the favor and the sash to Bachelet, tremors not only continue, they threaten to escalate. The demands for change are more numerous, stronger and better organized than they were in Bachelet’s first term—which was also rocked by protests. A new constitution and electoral system, access to quality public health, education and pensions, preservation of wild areas, reduction of poverty and inequality, a woman’s right to abortion and a same-sex couples’ right to marry: the demands are manifold and many are converging. This March 22, organizations representing workers, students and environmentalists, along with those advocating LGBTQ, immigrant and disabled rights are among the many that will converge under the banner of La Marcha de Todas las Marchas (The March of all Marches) with the explicit aim of reminding Bachelet of just that.
If meeting these demands amid all this pressure was not enough, Bachelet will also inherit a rapidly cooling economy, as China’s demands for copper—by far Chile’s number-one export—falters, and the U.S. Federal Reserve tapers quantitative easing.
Bachelet has promised to address some of Chileans’ concerns. She promises free higher education after six years, a tax-reform bill to pass Congress within 100 days, a state-run option to compliment the current private pension system, a bill on same-sex marriage—even a new constitution.
More often, however, she has been vague, talking in general terms about winding back extremely conservative anti-abortion laws, refusing to be pinned down on the mechanism of constitutional change and the path to free university education—a goal which she aims to reach once she has left office. And already, public opinion has the administration on the back foot, forcing the resignation of four appointed undersecretaries before they even assume office.
Bachelet herself is undoubtedly a popular figure, even if the coalition she led fell far from grace, and despite the vocal critics of her and her political allies. Her stated objectives are ambitious, if not as far-reaching as demonstrators might like.
But given external factors, the scope of popular demands and the moderation which she has already displayed over her political career, the first major initiative of the Bachelet administration may well be to lower expectations.