Chileans will vote for a president tomorrow, and polls suggest they will endorse Michelle Bachelet, a left-leaning doctor who previously held the country’s top job from 2006 to 2010.
The likely result is in part due to the unpopularity of the current right-wing rule, and a social dispute that has seen student protests calling for free, quality education.
“Chile has the most neoliberal model in the world,” said Mario Waissbluth, head of Educacion 2020, a non-profit organisation that hopes to overhaul the educational system. “The UK and the US, bastions of capitalism, look socialist compared with us. I’m not exaggerating. Chile is the Tea Party’s dream in terms of social and economic policies.”
That dream has been a classic non-interventionist state . The education system is the world’s most market-driven, with 90 per cent of university education and 35 per cent of secondary schools privately run.
Ms Bachelet and her rightwing rival Evelyn Matthei have been forced to listen by a long-running student movement that gained international notoriety in 2011, when students clashed with the heavy-handed Carabineros, the police force made infamous during the dictatorship. Student leaders pressed for free higher education. But the government of Sebastian Pinera, the billionaire incumbent, did little to change the status quo. In July 2011 he declared education was a “consumer good”.
While Ms Matthei, the Alianza candidate, has built her campaign on maintaining the economic success of the past – neoliberal policies that were implemented by the dictatorship – Ms Bachelet and her Nueva Mayoria coalition have promised a new direction.
“Ms Bachelet knows that she has to provide some sort of institutional solution to the political and social demands,” explained Robert Funk, a political scientist from the University of Chile.
Secondary schools are accused of being highly segregated, with the rich going to good schools and the poor to bad. When it comes to higher education, wealthy students often get places at public universities that still rank as among the most prestigious.
Ivan Belmar Vidal, 26, had to give up his studies in 2011 due to spiralling debts acquired at two private universities: “The people who go to the traditional universities tend to have the best secondary education,” he said. “The big problem with the system? Those with fewer resources have to attend the private universities.”
Ms Bachelet talks of eradicating fees and ensuring everyone has access to a good education, while maintaining the mixed system. But her potential victory would not be a cause for universal celebration: “Students need to have more of a say in deciding the system,” said Andres Fielbaum, 26, president of the University of Chile’s Student Federation.