What Chile’s Voters Want

In broad terms, there are two strains of government in Latin America: the new populism, exemplified by Venezuela or Argentina, and the pro-market model long represented by Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Peru. Will Chile pull back from this paradigm if the Socialist former president, Michelle Bachelet, wins the presidential election as expected on Sunday?

Not necessarily. When Ms. Bachelet was president, from 2006 to 2010, she focused on health care and social welfare programs for the elderly and medical care for pensioners. But she was broadly popular and represented a center-left coalition that had held power for two decades and had not undermined free-market capitalism. (She could not run for re-election because Chile’s constitution forbids presidents from serving consecutive terms.)

In 2010, Chileans elected Sebastián Piñera, a conservative businessman and economist and advocate of free markets. Now it is he who cannot run for re-election, and polls show Ms. Bachelet on the verge of a crushing victory over Mr. Piñera’s preferred successor, Evelyn Matthei.

If Ms. Bachelet wins, the reasons will be likely to have more to do with character, trustworthiness and historical memory than with economic ideology.

Let me relate a story from 30 years ago. I was lying on a sunny Pacific beach, having just swum in water so cold that it felt like an electric shock. The people in the water laughed or flailed. Some women stepped into the water gracefully; others dived right into the waves.

That day, I saw someone running toward the sea on short, sturdy legs. When he hit the water he continued like a robot, as if there were no waves or cold. And when the water was deep enough, he simply went under.

“Who is that guy?” I asked my friend.

“Sebastián Piñera,” she replied.

At the time, Mr. Piñera was an economics professor and banker, who had begun to amass a fortune introducing credit cards to Chile. The determination he showed that day revealed part of the secret behind his ascent to power: sheer strength of will.

Sadly, determination and empathy are not the same. Mr. Piñera’s economic record — fiscal responsibility, private investment, stable growth, low inflation, new jobs, cheap imports — has been excellent. As promised, he has governed like a brilliant C.E.O. But his shareholders — the voters — are not satisfied. He has the instincts of a technocrat and makes decisions based on polls. He thinks fast, perhaps too fast. He is shrewd, perhaps too shrewd. He is not universally trusted.

One example of Mr. Piñera’s seeming callousness: In 2011, students of mine at the University of Chile were leaving for a demonstration. They felt that the rich were running the government — “The foxes are in the henhouse,” one woman told me — with no counterbalance to protect regular people.

The students were protesting the rapid expansion of private universities, which were promoted as a way to increase college access. But poor quality and financial abuses at these profit-making schools — including the bankruptcy of one of them, Universidad del Mar — soured students and parents on them.

Another factor harming Mr. Piñera’s legacy is memory. This year was the 40th anniversary of the coup that toppled the democratically elected president Salvador Allende and ushered in the brutal military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

What’s striking is that the presidential contenders, Ms. Bachelet and Ms. Matthei, are both daughters of air force generals who were friends. Ms. Bachelet’s father, after the 1973 coup, was tortured and died of a heart attack. Ms. Bachelet and her mother were briefly imprisoned at Villa Grimaldi, a notorious secret prison. Ms. Matthei’s father was part of the Pinochet junta, an association that has not helped her. An economist and a senator with a strong personality, she has it in her to be Chile’s “Iron Lady,” if only Chileans were in the mood. But when she criticized Ms. Bachelet for including Communists (who praise Cuba and Venezuela) in her coalition and predicted that Ms. Bachelet’s policies would hurt Chile’s chances of joining the club of developed nations, voters didn’t respond. Perhaps they cared more about the concentration of wealth.

(The difference in the two women’s personalities was evident recently when Don Francisco, a popular television entertainer, invited Ms. Matthei to play the piano and Ms. Bachelet to dance with him. Ms. Matthei, a gifted musician, didn’t miss a note, but she played the Beatles’ “Let It Be” as if it were Bartok. Ms. Bachelet, meanwhile, danced effortlessly and charmingly.)

If she wins on Sunday, Ms. Bachelet’s biggest problem will be high and divergent expectations. She ended her first term on a wave of popularity, having weathered the worst effects of the global financial crisis while providing additional support for Chile’s poor. But her coalition is deeply divided over education, tax policy and constitutional reform, and she risks alienating the middle class if she moves too far to the left.

Her best course would be one of moderation: a few, but significant, steps to strengthen the welfare state, but without compromising economic growth. She has the charisma and the reputation for trustworthiness to allow her to muddle through.

As for the political right, it must break more decisively with the Pinochet legacy and abandon its adherence to the notion that economics explains everything about human behavior. That is not what Chileans believe. As Hamlet said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Arturo Fontaine is a novelist, poet and essayist and a professor of philosophy at the University of Chile. His most recent book is La Vida Doble: A Novel.

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