Bachelet releases policy platform 21 days ahead of election
Gay marriage, abortion, free education, tax reform, a new constitution and a general sense of ambiguity define front-runner’s 200-page political agenda.
Just three weeks from election day, the left-leaning Nueva Mayoría pact’s presidential candidate and election front-runner Michelle Bachelet released a policy platform that reaffirmed her general position on key policies, though fell short of providing specifics on how several major reforms would be achieved.
The former president has been the overwhelming favorite to return to La Moneda since announcing her bid for the presidency in March, though prior to the release of her platform she has shied away from providing detailed plans for the country.
“[Bachelet] is currently the winning candidate, and [providing] specific measures could make her lose electoral support,” Robert Funk, professor of political sciences at the Universidad de Chile, told The Santiago Times. “She has more interest in maintaining her support than risking the loss of votes through proposing contentious measures.”
The three main pillars of Bachelet’s program are education reform, tax reform and a new constitution. The latter has long been promised by Bachelet should she win her second stint in La Moneda, though those hoping for precise details as to how this would be achieved — through a constitutional assembly or other channels — were left wanting.
Similarly — and despite Nueva Mayoría spokesperson Osvaldo Andrade’s assertion of “clear financing” in the program — Bachelet’s plan to provide free university education within six years of her taking office was not fleshed out in the document in terms of funding streams.
In terms of taxation, Bachelet proposed that a new structure would reap US$8.2 billion — just over half of her US$15.1 billion public spending plan. To aid reaching this goal, the Socialist Party (PS) candidate reiterated plans to raise corporate tax by five points to 25 percent, and estimated that a clamp down on tax evasion could deliver close to US$ 1.3 billion. These measures were contrasted, however, by a five point cut in maximum income tax from 40 to 35 percent.
Bachelet was forthright in her program over contentious social issues. The former president announced she would send a same-sex marriage bill to Congress following an “open debate” on the issue, and pledged to “promote policies to reinforce women’s autonomy,” referencing her support of the decriminalization of abortion in cases of danger to the mother’s life, rape or unviability of the fetus.
Free university after six years
The education movement has been growing since high school students initiated their “pinguinos” movement in 2006 during Bachelet’s first term, which called for greater equality in the country’s schools. Education was put firmly into the center of Chilean politics in 2011 when student protesters consistently rocked the capital with marches of more than 100,000 supporters.
One of the main demands of the ongoing protests is free university education, something which Bachelet has promised to deliver — after her term in office will have ended.
Bachelet’s platform describes education reform as a “fundamental challenge,” pledging that free public university would be available to all six years after the day the former leader would assume office. Presidential terms are four years and consecutive stints are constitutionally barred.
In her political agenda, Bachelet confirms the main points of the education plan she publicly announced in June, though did not reveal specific mechanisms through which the reform would be funded.
Bachelet says she would give priority to students from lower income brackets. Her policy program confirmed that the students who belong to the most economically vulnerable 70 percent of the population will be given access to free education before the end of her presidential mandate, and the remaining 30 percent in the two years following her term.
However, her proposal gives little insight regarding how exactly her government would pursue such reforms. Andrés Fielbaum, president of the Student Federation of Universidad de Chile (FECH), told The Santiago Times he remains doubtful of Bachelet’s government program.
“The problem is that Michelle Bachelet talks about free education, but she does not specify whether she will finance the institutions directly, or if she will give more scholarships and loans,” Fielbaum said. “[The question is] whether what she will do will be useless, or it will really solve the problem by strengthening public education and by putting an end to profit in all institutions — not only the ones that receive public funding.”
While Bachelet’s government program states the aim to “end to profit-making in education,” it does not specify whether the whole educational system will be non-profit, or if financial gains will only be banned for institutions receiving public funding.
“We insist that public financing go exclusively to non-profit educational institutions, which are regulated and financed properly,” says the document.
This subtle discrepancy leaves a major question unanswered: will educational institutions that do not received government resources be allowed to profit?
“[Bachelet’s] proposal is very ambiguous,” Fielbaum said. “On the one hand, she claims to put an end to profit in the educational system, and then says that those institutions that profit will not receive public funding. We believe that education is a right, and and needs to stop being treated like a business.”
In the document, Bachelet also calls for the creation of an Undersecretariat of Higher Education as a means to “allow a more productive and direct relation” with educators, and highlights the need for the development of regional education, promising universities in the two regions without higher education facilities: Aysén and O’Higgins.
Regarding funding streams, the report simply states that the “large undertaking of educational reform” will be supported by revenue found in a new tax structure.
If elected, Bachelet would send to a Congress a bill involving her plans for a new tax system within the first 100 days of taking office. Bachelet’s US$15.1 billion public spending plan relies in part on US$8.2 billion in tax revenues garnered through a revamped tax structure and targeting tax evasion.
Bachelet’s plan promised to raise corporate tax from 20 percent to 25 percent over a four year period — a point below the increase suggested by third-placed independent candidate and fiscal conservative Franco Parisi. However, in conjunction to the increase in corporate taxes, the plan also outlined a reduction of the maximum rate of personal taxes from 40 percent to 35 percent.
Eugenio Rivera explained to The Santiago Times that these contrasting taxation changes bring into question whether the changes to the tax system would result in the proposed targets being reached or make for a more progressive tax system as a whole.
“In my opinion, it is positive that Michelle Bachelet will increase taxation on companies,” Rivera said. “However … the reduction in the marginal level of personal tax from 40 to 35 percent is without a doubt, negative — this could significantly neutralize the effect of the increase of corporate tax.”
In the platform, the former president reaffirmed her desire to end the Taxable Profits Fund (FUT), an account first created in 1984 during Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s regime, described by critics as way for the wealthy to avoid high taxation. The FUT enables some business owners to register their personal income from business profits as an asset of their corporation, dropping those individuals to a lower income tax bracket.
“The mechanism of the FUT that exists today in Chile does not exist in any other part of the world,” the document reads, attributing it as a measure to avoid economic depression during the 1980s.
“[The FUT] is one of the things that contributes the most to the entrenchment of wealth inequality, or to the lack of redistribution, because it is a measure that is an exclusive advantage for the people with larger incomes,” Funk told the Santiago Times.
Those in favor of the FUT say the system has been efficient in the past and encourages large amounts of private savings. Economic adviser to the right-leaning Alianza candidate Evelyn Matthei, Felipe Morandé, defended the FUT at a conference in Santiago on Oct. 4 where both he and Bachelet’s economic adviser outlined their candidates’ economic proposals.
“Eliminating the FUT is a dangerous and an impractical proposal that can set off an earthquake in saving levels,” Morandé said.
A new constitution
Drafted in 1980 under the regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, a reworking of the current constitution has been a frequently debated topic this election season. Candidates Matthei and Parisi both call for reform of the the existing constitution. The seven remaining candidates back the drafting of a new constitution, though either differ on how such a process should be undertaken or fall short on making any suggestions whatever.
Humanist Party (PH) candidate Marcel Claude is in favor of calling a referendum for the establishment of a constitutional assembly. Progressive Party (PRO) candidate Marco Enríquez-Ominami and Equality Party (PI) candidate Roxana Miranda would hold a referendum on whether there should be a new constitution, but both have publicly endorsed a constitutional assembly. Independent Tomás Jocelyn-Holt feels the need for an “open debate” on the subject of a new constitution, while Regionalist Party of Independents (PRI) candidate Ricardo Israel, Green Party (PEV) candidate Alfredo Sfeir and Bachelet simply profess the need for a new document.
Bachelet’s program remained unclear over which mechanism she would use to bring about the reform.
Creating a state-administered pension
In her program, Bachelet committed to a state-run pension scheme that would compliment the current AFP system, in which private funds invest workers’ contributions on the market.
The current system leaves Chilean retirement funds vulnerable to market trends. An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report released last Wednesday cited that many middle class Chileans only receive a median of 37 percent (for females) and 60 percent (for males) of pre-retirement salaries.
Bachelet’s tandem system can be viewed as a moderate proposal among the presidential candidates. On one end of the spectrum, Claude has called for the complete dismantling of the private-run system, on the opposite end, Matthei has promised to maintain the private system, stating that disfunction in the system comes from low worker contributions.
Rivera told The Santiago Times that the creation of a public pension scheme while maintaining the existing AFP system does not address some fundamental problems.
“This [new public option is] oriented to the group of the population of the least interest for the existing AFP, meaning that the state is limited to worrying about the unprofitable sectors of the population,” Rivera said.
A more liberal stance on social issues
Bachelet’s government program states that the civil union (AVP) legislation currently in place is unsatisfactory and does not represent a good solution to the issue of homosexual marriage.
“We will organize an open debate, with wide participation, to elaborate and thereafter send a bill for same-sex marriage,” the program reads.
While appreciative of the reform proposal, the President of the Movement for Homosexual Integration and Liberation (Movilh), Rolando Jiménez, said he is concerned by the ambiguity of the term “open debate” and its implications for the viability of reform.
“We value the fact that she included this proposal to send a bill to recognize homosexual marriage [in her program],” Jiménez told The Santiago Times, before raising concerns that an “open debate” would undermine same-sex marriage’s status as a secular issue. “The majority of Chileans are in favor of same-sex marriage … This is a matter that has to do with the state, it is a subject of law, and thus the church is not incumbent.”
Bachelet’s program also talks of advancing the rights of gender identity.
“We will promote the gender equality law, which is currently being drafted, as a response to the need to legally enshrine the right to gender identity and establish a judicial process … which will allow people to adjust their name and sex according to their own gender identity,” the program said.
Another important social aspect of Bachelet’s government program is the legalization of therapeutic abortion.
“We will promote policies to reinforce women’s autonomy,” the document reads. “This includes … the decriminalization of voluntary interruption of pregnancy in cases of danger to the mother’s life, rape or unviability of the fetus.”
While the legalization of therapeutic abortion would be a big step for Chile, human rights groups were hoping for more.
“The proposal to decriminalize [abortion] in those cases is without a doubt an advancement, especially regarding the most serious cases where it is shocking that Chile treats [abortion] like a crime,” Ana Piquer, Executive Director of Amnesty International Chile, told The Santiago Times. “However, for Amnesty International, Chile should move towards the complete decriminalization of abortion.”
Other aspects of the program suggest secular sexual education in schools, access to sexual and reproductive health and effective availability of birth-control, including emergency contraception.