[OUTLOOK]Chile unlikely to join leftists

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[OUTLOOK]Chile unlikely to join leftists

A new political milestone has been passed in Chile. The foreign media made a big deal out of the fact that Michelle Bachelet, a woman, a socialist, a divorcee and an agnostic, was elected president in the conservative Catholic nation of Chile. Korean newspapers ran headlines saying the election of a moderate leftist would change Latin America into a continent of leftists. However, they are wrong.
What really mattered was that it was the first election held completely out of Augusto Pinochet’s shadow, which had oppressed Chilean politics for the last 42 years. Sebastian Pinera, who was defeated by Ms. Bachelet in the runoff election, is a former businessman and a democratic rightist candidate with no connection to the military government. However, the rightists failed once again mainly because of internal divisions. They have been a mere starter in the elections for 42 years.
The victory of Ms. Bachelet was long predicted by the opinion polls of the rightist politicians as well. The ruling Coalition of Parties for Democracy, commonly known as “Concertacion,” now gets to remain in power for four consecutive terms. Under its platform of free market policies, Concertacion has maintained an impressive growth rate of 6 to 7 percent annually from 1990 to 2000, and established itself as an excellent manager of the Chilean economy.
While the country struggled in the early 2000’s, the annual growth rate recovered to 7 percent in 2005. Thanks to a rise in copper prices because of special demand from China, exports doubled in the last three years and exceeded 40 billion dollars last year.
The exiting president Ricardo Lagos is very popular, with an approval rating of 75 percent. Because of these favorable factors, Ms. Bachelet obtained 54 percent of the vote and scored an easy victory.
The media puts too much emphasis on the symbolism of Ms. Bachelet’s election to president. During the election campaign, she openly said that she was “a woman, a divorcee, a socialist and an agnostic.”
However, no Chilean seemed offended by her remark, and it has never been made an issue throughout the campaign.
Chilean society might seem very conservative, with the divorce law having been passed only two years ago, but it has already changed when it comes to gender issues. Ms. Bachelet was supported equally by both genders, winning the support of 45 percent of males and 47 percent of females. Chile as a male-chauvinist macho society can only be found in history books.
Ms. Bachelet is the fourth agnostic president. The presidents of Chile in 1940 and 1970 were also agnostic, and so was Ricardo Lagos, her predecessor. However, the Catholic Church did not campaign against her or issue any statement opposing her.
The votes of Chile’s Catholics and Protestants are evenly divided between the left and the right. Religion seems to be a minor variable in the country’s voting behavior. The presidential election in Chile has become a simple ceremony of electing a virtuous and dutiful manager to administer state affairs.
Just because Ms. Bachelet is a socialist, Korean newspapers came to the hasty conclusion that her triumph was part of a leftist government domino reaction in Latin America. However, they were wrong. In Chile, where the ideological topography itself leans to the right, the leftists are not much different from the center rights in Korea. The Socialist Party of Chile is more liberal and less reformist than the Uri Party.
The ruling Coalition of Parties for Democracy, which includes the Socialist Party, stands by the basic frame of liberal economic order erected by Mr. Pinochet. The social reform they advocate is mainly about fixing the pension and medical insurance systems and correcting the inequality of the underdog in the educational system. However, the gap between rich and poor in Chile is very serious, with its Gini coefficient at 0.55.
Young voters refused to cast their votes, feeling both candidates were not progressive enough. Of 3 million young adults aged 18 to 29, 74 percent did not register to vote.
While Ms. Bachelet said she wanted to create a country with no losers and no discrimination, a drastic prescription tackling Chile’s social distribution problem is not likely to appear. Moreover, there is little possibility that the new administration will join the anti-American waves of regionalism and economic nationalism advocated by the center-left governments of Latin America.
Chile’s exports are concentrated on Asia, the European Union and North America. Exports to Asia make up 32 percent of the total, while exports to the EU and North America are 25 and 24 percent, respectively. The country’s exports to other South American nations are only 6 percent.
Why would a country with major export markets outside of South America keep step with the leftist governments in Latin America?

* The writer is a professor of political science at Ewha Womans University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Rhee Sung-hyong
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