Chile: Outgoing leader Bachelet leaves uncertain legacy

Thought ineligible to stand for a second term, Bachelet has an approval rating of just 26 percent [Kenzaburo Fukuhara/Getty Images]

November 18th 2017, for Al Jazeera by

President Michelle Bachelet has earned plaudits abroad but at home her approval ratings are low and voter apathy high.

In turbulent Latin America, Chile is admired for its political and economic stability, with low unemployment and inflation even lower.

Forbes Magazine named Socialist President Michelle Bachelet the world’s fourth most influential woman and the Chilean leader has been invited to form part of a prestigious 18-person UN crisis resolution task force after her term ends in March. 

So why is Bachelet’s domestic approval rating (26 percent) so low that according to polls her would be successor is unlikely to win Sunday’s general elections?

Though Bachelet is ineligible to run, Chileans have lost patience and respect for their institutions, especially their politicians.

A series of corruption scandals, involving political parties and politicians from the far-right to the left, has infuriated the electorate, which is more likely to punish the coalition that’s already in power.

Even President Bachelet’s son and daughter-in-law have been implicated.

The government has been slow and clumsy in promoting and passing ambitious structural reforms, especially a long-awaited overhaul of the education system.

Right-wing narrative

But while these should contribute to more social equality in the long run, the reforms will take years to have an effect .

In the meantime, a sluggish economy has made Chileans uneasy.

“The political right was very, very effective in installing a discourse that the country was going to go down the drain, economic growth is slowing down, creating uncertainty … when in actual fact it was the international scenario slowing growth.” said economist Kirsten Sehnbruch.

And so of the eight presidential candidates on the ballot, it is former conservative president, Sebastian Pinera, who stands the best chance of winning.

The billionaire businessman, whose slogan is “Better Times Ahead”, is believed to be the only presidential candidate in the America’s with more money than Donald Trump.

He has been dogged by allegations of impropriety and conflicts of interest but these do not seem to present an insurmountable hurdle.

Political analyst Patricio Navia: “Pinera is not well liked. He has [a lot of] negatives, but people think that he governed relatively well, that the country grew, that there was employment, there were opportunities for many people, so they are saying ‘Let´s give him a chance again’.” 

By contrast, former journalist and Senator Alejandro Guillier, is struggling to convince Chileans to give him a chance to consolidate Bachelet’s reforms.

The centre-left has been dogged by divisions and is fielding four candidates.

For the first time, the Christian Democrats have broken with the ruling progressive coalition to present their own candidate, Caroline Goic, making it even harder to complete against Pinera.

No candidate is expected to win the necessary majority in a first round and a runoff is expected.

And then there is the spectre of voter apathy.

According to one poll, more than 80 percent of Chileans between 18 and 24 will abstain from going to the polls, which experts say will benefit the conservatives.

This will be the second general election in which voting is not mandatory, and less than half of eligible voters are expected to cast ballots.