Chile's Election: A Referendum on Pinochet


This year's presidential election in Chile marks not only the return to leftist policies, but also stands as a powerful symbol of reflection on the 17-year dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

In what seemed an almost serendipitous confrontation during the 40th anniversary year of the 1973 U.S. backed coup, childhood friends found themselves in opposition. It was a not so subtle backdrop that dominated the campaign, later rehashed in nearly every article written about the two female candidates.

The inevitable frontrunner and now President-elect, Michelle Bachelet, a left-leaning moderate whose father stood against, but was killed and tortured by the Pinochet regime; and her opponent, Evelyn Matthei, a pro-business conservative and former Minister of Labor and Social Security, whose father was part of the right-wing military junta until the 1988 plebiscite showed the dictator was out of favor with Chileans.

Their candidacies underscored the political psyche of a country still struggling to overcome and gain a greater understanding of the overthrow of socialist President Salvador Allende and the violent repression that occurred thereafter.

Bachelet herself had come to symbolize the need for a deeper analysis of the dictatorship era. Her sentiments were echoed by protesters who came out in record numbers to rally for reforms in 2011. Their frustrations stemmed from a desire to see an overhaul of an outdated political system. Something that has given Bachelet a greater resonance with voters as she champions her vision for a post-coup Chile, cleansed from the reopening and disinfecting of Pinochet era wounds.

Her therapeutic stance on abortion gives her enough leverage to maneuver a way for women to gain access to the procedure; a privilege that was prohibited in 1989 under the Pinochet regime.

With an increase in corporate taxes by 5%, Bachelet would return universal education to the country, another pre-dictatorship program that was privatized after the coup.

Bachelet also promised to back gay marriage, a bold position to take in a country that legalized divorce in just 2004.

And the central gem of Bachelet's political agenda, the rewriting of the dictatorship-era constitution of 1980, which not only limited her "New Majority" coalition from seats in the Congress, but placed stringent red tape on the electoral system's capacity for political change. Replacing it would mean wiping away the final remnants of Pinochet's political influence on the country, an indictment that could only be exacted by Bachelet.

The body politic of conservatives would much rather brush under the rug the Pinochet era, having suffered greatly in the political system from their affiliation with the general. Perhaps, somewhat unfairly, but for the same reason they continue to run candidates that are affiliated with Pinochet, which is no winning formula.

The more Matthei attempted to distance herself from the coup during the campaign, the more awkward it became for her to answer personal questions and criticisms of her relationship with it.

Eventually confronting the issue for her, right-wing President Sebastián Piñera acknowledged in an interview with CNN Chile that Matthei had indeed made a mistake in publicly supporting and voting to lengthen the military regime of Pinochet.

Since then, Matthei has stood by her decision, "Some call it a government, others a dictatorship," she argued in the last of the Chilean presidential debates. "I call it a government -- remember, my father was there."

Her policies stood counter to Bachelet's and were adjusted early on in the campaign to gather a wider conservative base. That same base, which later settled on Matthei, had attempted to persuade several male candidates to seek the nomination prior to her selection. The coalition's reluctance to initially support Matthei hurt her credibility and the backlash she received as a result of her initial pro-choice stance among religious groups forced her to readjust her candidacy to one of pro-life and anti-gay marriage.

The realignment allowed Matthei to refocus barbs at her left-leaning counterpart, but with little effectiveness.

Although she believed the constitution Bachelet campaigned to re-write was a foundation that could be built on, she failed in her effort to build enthusiasm for what became a less transformative agenda she was the spokesperson for.