SANTIAGO, Dec 16 – Socialist Michelle Bachelet was swept back into office Sunday as Chile’s next president, on a platform of narrowing the gap between rich and poor.
“Chile, now, finally, the time has come to carry out the changes,” Bachelet told cheering supporters in Santiago shortly after her landslide win, joined by her children and mother Angela Jeria.
Bachelet, 62, takes office March 11 to succeed conservative billionaire President Sebastian Pinera for a term running through 2018.
This is a “historic” moment for Chile, Bachelet said, because “it has decided that this is the time to carry out far-reaching reforms” such as free post-secondary education, raising taxes and adopting a new, more modern constitution.
The president-elect praised thousands of student protesters who in 2011 took to the streets to demand free, quality universal university education.
“Money is not what should be driving education. Education is not merchandise. Dreams are not something that you go out and buy; everyone has the right to have them,” Bachelet said.
On carrying out social and economic changes, Bachelet said “it isn’t going to be easy. But since when was it ever easy to change the world for the better?”
She served as Chile’s first woman president in 2006, and now has a chance to cement her legacy with popular reforms to dismantle more of the political and social legacy of the Pinochet era.
The national electoral board said Bachelet earned 62.10 percent of the vote against Matthei’s 37.80 percent, with nearly all votes tallied.
Bachelet’s contest with Matthei marked the first time in Latin America that a presidential runoff was held between two women.
More than 13 million Chileans were eligible to vote Sunday, but this year’s race marked the first time that voting in a presidential election was voluntary in Chile. Early indications were that turnout was low.
In the first round, which saw Bachelet win 47 percent of the vote to 25 percent for Matthei, more than 50 percent of voters did not bother to cast ballots.
Matthei, 60, and Bachelet are both the daughters of Air Force generals and knew each other as schoolgirls.
But while Bachelet’s father died after being tortured for remaining loyal to leftist president Salvador Allende in the 1973 coup, Matthei’s father supported the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
Bachelet was also tortured, fled the country, then returned years later to work as a paediatrician, eventually entering politics.
Plenty at stake for a new Bachelet term
Bachelet focused her campaign on promises of greater social justice in a country that has the highest per capita income of any Latin American country.
She has proposed increasing taxes to raise $8.2 billion for the state coffers and also wants to provide universally free access to post-secondary education.
As part of her planned sweeping reforms, Bachelet hopes to bring Chile in line with a wave of social liberalism spreading across once-conservative Latin America, including by legalizing abortion and opening discussions on same-sex marriage.
In her first term, Bachelet reformed the pension system, improved health and social services, and focused on the well-being of Chile’s working class and elderly.
Her presidency coincided with a boom in global demand for copper, Chile’s top export.
Matthei, facing what looked like impossible odds, built her presidential bid on promises to improve the lives of Chile’s middle class.
She has slammed Bachelet’s leftist ideas as “experiments that have failed in other countries.”
Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto congratulated Bachelet on her victory to lead one of his country’s key strategic partners.