Voters in Chile swept former President Michelle Bachelet back into office on Sunday as the Socialist leader garnered the highest number of votes in a presidential race since the restoration of democracy.
The 62-year-old Bachelet, a pediatrician by profession and separated with three children, was supported by a wide coalition of groups ranging from Christian Democrats to the Communist Party, which was participating in a national election for the first time since the 1973 military coup.
In this second round, the former president trounced conservative candidate Evelyn Matthei, gaining 62.16 percent of the vote over her opponent’s 37.83 percent – a more than 1.35 million ballot difference. Nevertheless, voter abstention was estimated at around 59 percent – 10 points higher than in the first round, which took place on November 17.
Bachelet, whose father, General Albert Bachelet, died after being tortured in a military prison following Augusto Pinochet’s coup, will take over the presidency from Sebastián Piñeda on March 11. She has promised profound overhauls of the country’s education and health systems and labor sector.
In the 20 years since the return to democracy no president has managed to successfully reform Chile’s education system, which reflects some of the greatest inequalities that still exist in the country.
Since 2011, students across Chile have held infrequent protests – some of which have been violent – to demand changes in the system.
The wealthy and privileged generally have access to good education at high-school level that allows them to pass college entrance exams and study at one of two of Chile’s top universities. Other Chileans must pay high tuition fees to enter private universities, which are less prestigious than the public ones.
“Five percent of the top wealthy citizens earn 257 times more than five percent of the poorest residents,” said Marcos Kremerman, an economist at Fundación Sol. “The gap between salaries of an employee boss and a worker is more than 100 times. This all has to do with the institutions that exist in Chile, which were created during the dictatorship.”
Even most Chileans are unaware of the poverty that still exists in the country today. During presidential debates earlier this year, Roxana Miranda, who was running for the Equality party, asked her opponents if they knew how the women in her municipality treated problems with their teeth without having to going to the dentist. She surprised them and many television viewers when she explained that they fashioned a paste made from cloves. Many dental associations endorsed her claims.
“In day-to-day life you have to get by through borrowing; money doesn’t go far to pay the electricity and water bills,” she said.
Nevertheless, Chileans have one of the highest standards of living in Latin America. The country’s GDP grew to 5.5 percent in 2010 – just one point about the Latin American average.