The Blog

Chile Election 2013: Bachelet Set to Return as Young Leaders Make Their Mark

The streets of Santiago are lined with political campaign posters as Chile readies itself for its general election on Sunday. It is the country's most important election since it voted 'No' to Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship in 1990...

The streets of Santiago are lined with political campaign posters as Chile readies itself for its general election on Sunday. It is the country's most important election since it voted 'No' to Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship in 1990.

A resurgent left has set the agenda for the election seizing on the unpopularity of Sebastian Piñera's government and a fragmented right-wing. The left's programme is ambitious, focussing on big-ticket items such as the creation of a new constitution, reform of the tax system, and education.

Michelle Bachelet, leader of 'La Nueva Mayoria' centre left coalition, remains by far the front-runner. The popular former President returned home earlier this year, after a stint at the UN in New York, to a hero's welcome and sky-high approval ratings.

Her main rival, the right's Evelyn Matthei, has struggled to build any campaign momentum and has faced regular questions over whether her military officer father played a role in the death of Bachelet's father. The men had been peers in the armed forces but Alberto Bachelet's loyalty to Salvador Allende led to his imprisonment, torture, and eventual death.

With the odds stacked in her favour, it comes as no surprise that Bachelet is expected to win - if the job is not hers by the end of Sunday, it is expected to be by the second round of voting in December (Chilean general elections require the victor to obtain an outright majority).

Yet, in spite of her popularity, if she does win it will not have been a straight-forward coronation. Coalition building, bargaining, and the media's forensic gaze has inevitably resulted in diminished approval ratings.

Also, Bachelet remains an establishment candidate at a time when Chilean politics is witnessing the rise of a new breed of young, political leader, whose roots are in the student protests of 2011. Two politicians in particular - Giorgio Jackson, the figurehead of the new 'Revolución Democrática' movement, and the Communist Camilla Vallejo - have captured the public's imagination and are fast becoming folk heroes. It is not unusual to see a picture of Camilla Vallejo behind shop counters in Santiago à la Che Guevara. Jackson and Vallejo are campaigning for seats in the lower chamber of the Chilean Congress and are both expected to win.

It is a case study that is worth noting by those in the UK like Russell Brand who are disillusioned with the current state of Westminster politics. In Chile, these young leaders are campaigning for major social and democratic change and the elite is taking notice.

The support they have amassed is impressive. At Giorgio Jackson's closing campaign rally last Sunday evening, 5,000 young people descended upon Santiago's sun-drenched Plaza de Armas to witness something more akin to a music festival than a standard political rally.

But it's not just pleasing-to-hear slogans and upbeat rallies: there is a tangible sense in the governing classes that this new breed of politician can influence Chile's future. Some would argue they have been responsible for setting the agenda on the need for a new constitution and policies to bring about a fairer society.

They certainly talk a good game. When asked why the Communist party joined Bachelet's 'La Nueva Mayoria' coalition Camilo Ballesteros - another highly regarded young politician - replied it is because they want to ensure that the coalition delivers on its promises and stays true to a leftist course. Though only 26, one gets the impression that he would not tolerate any major deviations.

A senior member of Bachelet's campaign team, that operates out of the fashionable, low-rise Santiago suburb of Providencia, acknowledges the growing influence of Jackson's 'Revolución Democrática' and Camilla Vallejo and admits that they have sought to accommodate some of their positions to help return Bachelet to La Moneda. It is a remarkable achievement that a group of young former student leaders have had a demonstrable impact on the programme of Chile's most highly regarded senior politician.

So as Bachelet nears ever closer to a return to the Presidency, the expectations on her will be high. She has an ambitious programme of reform that naysayers say will be too much to achieve in four years, and she'll also have to keep the new kids on the block, ever impatient for change, in check.