Bachelet set to re-win presidency, rule new Chile

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Associated Press

Posted on December 14, 2013 at 4:03 PM

Updated Saturday, Dec 14 at 4:06 PM

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Michelle Bachelet seems almost certain to win the presidency on Sunday, but she'll face a dramatically different Chile if she returns to power.

The promise she made to keep her country's economy stable while pursuing social justice when she took the oath for her first presidential term in 2006 will hardly satisfy citizens now.

Millions of Chileans have marched in the streets after Bachelet left office and want more: electoral, educational and tax reforms, a new constitution, an end to the privatization of water — all vestiges of the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Bachelet is expected to easily defeat former Labor Minister Evelyn Matthei in a runoff election Sunday. But even if Bachelet keeps her promise to raise taxes on the wealthy to fund free education, protesters promise to push for more reforms in her four-year presidential term.

"The change that came with the protests is enormous," political analyst Alberto Mayol said. "The transformations in terms of values and ideologies are radical. We're probably talking about a transformation that is equivalent to what would happen in 10, 15 years and it all happened in two years."

With Chile long regarded as Latin America's most socially conservative nation, divorce was illegal here until 2004 and gay marriage and abortion had been out of the question amid the Catholic Church's influence. Church leaders, conservative politicians and even allies scolded Bachelet, a pediatrician, when she legalized the morning-after pill during her first presidency.

Yet Chile's inhibitions are now limited to a conservative elite, opinion polls say, and the country's politics reflect that even after Sebastian Pinera became the first right-wing president in 2010 after the country's return to democracy.

Congress recently passed an anti-discrimination law after a gay man was murdered, and Chileans are debating loosening restrictions that prohibit abortion even in cases of rape or risks to the woman or fetus. Bachelet has supported both proposals.

Bachelet, now 62, has changed as well.

After leaving office, she gained international experience running the UN's women's agency and created a center-left "New Majority" coalition replacing the one that ruled Chile for more than two decades. Bachelet has brought Communists, street activists and former student leaders on board.

Pinera's popularity plunged after teachers and parents joined students in demonstrations, along with rights activists, Mapuche Indians and environmentalists.

The unifying demand has been to end dictatorship-era policies that protesters say help concentrate wealth and power among a few. Bachelet has responded by saying "it's time for a new social and political cycle that is built collectively."

Chile's schools were free before Pinochet ended central control and funding of primary and secondary education. Pinochet also sold off water services, undid land reforms, privatized pensions, cut wages and slashed trade barriers.

Bachelet dealt with nascent student protests in her first term by reshuffling her Cabinet, naming a committee to study the problems but largely declining to tackle them. This time she has enough votes in Congress, including four student leaders-elected-lawmakers, to raise $8 billion in new taxes to fund major education reforms.

Business leaders, however, are nervous about some proposals such as raising business taxes by 5 percent.

She's also backed the environmental regulator's decision to stop Barrick Gold Corp.'s $8.5 billion Pascua-Lama mine until it complies with Chilean regulations. She's also opposed new coal-fired power plants and hydroelectric projects although she approved them in her first term.

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Associated Press writer Eva Vergara contributed to this report.

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Luis Andres Henao: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao

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