In March 2010, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet ended her first term in office with an unprecedented 84 percent approval rating. In December 2013, she won reelection to Chile’s presidency with an impressive 62 percent of the vote. Today, however, her approval rating stands at an anemic 22 percent.
What explains this dramatic decline in popular support for Bachelet and her administration? Is the President’s precipitous drop in popularity merely the result of an unfortunate confluence of recent negative political and economic events? Or does her administration’s difficulties reflect deeper problems with Chile’s development model? An evaluation of the problems confronting the Bachelet government suggests that both proximate and more fundamental forces are at play.
The fundamental forces posing challenges to the Bachelet government are intrinsic to Chile’s market-oriented mode of development. The Chilean model, so named to capture the nation’s enviable development success since the 1990 transition from dictatorship to democracy, promised strong economic growth, robust political-institutional stability, and rising levels of social welfare. Although Chile has made real achievements in each of these areas, beneath such achievements persist substantial, deeply embedded problems.
Economic growth has led to a nearly fivefold increase in per capita GDP since 1990. However, inequality has barely budged, leaving Chile with one of the worst income distributions in the world. Though Chile has enjoyed political stability since its democratic transition, this stability was achieved through a highly elitist form of governance, precipitating profound disenchantment with the country’s political parties and politicians. As evidence of this disenchantment, approval of Chile’s two dominant political alliances, Bachelet’s center-left Nueva Mayoria and the center-right Chile Vamos, 18 and 19 percent respectively, is even lower than support for Bachelet.
While Chile's post-transition governments have spent significantly more on social welfare than did the preceding military regime, they left former dictator Augusto Pinochet’s stratifying social policies largely intact. Higher education, for example, has been largely privatized while public universities continue to be underfunded. As a result, Chile’s universities are the most expensive in Latin America. The fact that 80 percent of Chile’s university students never earn a degree reflects the difficulty in meeting the steep cost of higher education.
The Chilean model is also plagued by an over-dependence on resource extraction, particularly of copper. In the commodities boom of the past decade, high prices for copper and Chile’s other export commodities helped finance economic growth and some modest income redistribution. This growth and redistribution, in turn, helped to maintain political and social stability. But now that the commodities boom has gone bust, the Bachelet government faces unanticipated fiscal constraints.
Herein lies one of the primary sources of dissatisfaction with President Bachelet: her inability to make good on campaign promises due to, in large measure, a sharp decline in commodity prices and the state’s attendant loss in revenue. During her 2013 reelection campaign, Bachelet raised expectations that she would address the serious social inequities plaguing Chilean society. However, with her administration now facing diminished revenue, precipitated primarily by the recent decline in the price of copper, it has had to pursue more modest policy goals.
Higher education is a case in point. On May 21, 2015, President Bachelet guaranteed free higher education to many of the most vulnerable students enrolled in public universities. However, due to a significant decline in state revenue, the government’s policy is restricted to the bottom 60 percent of the most needy students in public universities. Additionally, it provides no coverage for students in private universities. Thus, of the approximately 720,000 university students in Chile, Bachelet’s policy provides free education to just over 232,000. Student groups strongly criticize the government’s policy for its failure to end the profit motive in education and satisfy their demand to make university attendance free.
Disapproval of the government is not isolated to its handling of higher education reform. The Confederación Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), Chile’s largest labor confederation and ally of Bachelet’s Socialist Party, recently criticized the government’s recent labor reforms, which it argues continue to favor employer interests over those of workers.
Corruption scandals, from which President Bachelet is not immune, have exacerbated her low approval ratings. Indeed, Bachelet’s image was severely tarnished by a scandal involving her son and daughter-in-law, in which they used their political connections to carry out a questionable real estate deal. Though Bachelet has not been directly implicated in this scandal, the involvement of her son and daughter-in-law in legally and ethically questionable behavior has reinforced the prevailing narrative that the political class is undeserving of the public’s trust.
Perhaps in an earlier period, the Chilean public would be more forgiving of the government’s failure to fully deliver on its campaign promises and less prone to find it guilty by association when issues of corruption arise. Yet, Chileans' disenchantment with its politicians and political parties has festered for some time, as evidenced by the steady rise of voter abstention over the post-transition period. Voter turnout in the 2013 presidential election was the lowest on record for a democratic presidential election in Chile.
In part, these trends reflect a generational shift. Center-left governments benefited for many years from the public’s collective memory of repression under the Pinochet regime and their desire not to allow the right, and by extension the military, to regain power. But this so-called authoritarian-democratic divide has ceased to shape Chilean politics, at least since Pinochet’s death in 2006. Many of the current generation were not yet born when General Pinochet was in power, or else are too young to recollect the severe human rights abuses, political repression, and economic deprivation inflicted on Chilean society by his regime.
Thus, today Chilean politics appears to have entered a new era with a reference point that no longer revolves around the public’s fear of reversion to an authoritarian past. Rather, the public's anger and frustrations are now fueled by the failure of democracy to produce a more just and equitable present and more positive prospects for the future. From this perspective, President Bachelet’s historically low approval ratings likely reflect not simply dissatisfaction with her performance in office, but also a more profound disillusionment with the Chilean development model. If this diagnosis is correct, Bachelet’s government and its successors will continue to confront marginal popular approval and declining legitimacy, until and unless they can more effectively reconcile global economic pressures with domestic demands for increased government responsive and enhanced social equity.