Second Time's The Charm: Bachelet To Be Sworn In As President Of Chile

Michelle Bachelet is older and wiser than she was eight years ago when she first assumed Chile's presidency, but chances are that leading her restive nation won't be any easier this time around.

The moderate socialist takes office Tuesday promising to finance education reform with higher corporate taxes, improve health care, change the dictatorship-era constitution to make Congress more representative and reduce the vast gap between rich and poor.

"Bachelet's biggest challenge is that the expectations are too high," said Patricio Navia, a Chilean political scientist at New York University.

"She promised a lot of things, a lot of reforms, so people expect many things to happen," Navia added. "But the economic conditions have changed, and have changed rather rapidly, since the electoral campaign. The economy is not growing quite as fast and Bachelet is not going to have the leverage to introduce all the reforms."

During her first presidency in 2006-10, Bachelet won praise for shepherding Chile through the global economic crisis. Although growth stumbled and unemployment rose, she used government reserves to help the poorest Chileans during hard times, and she enjoyed 84 percent approval when she left office even though she achieved no major changes.

The student protests that bedeviled outgoing President Sebastian Pinera began under Bachelet, who named a commission and shuffled her Cabinet in response. That seemed enough at a time when the student groups were strongly influenced by the ruling center-left coalition.

Those bonds broke under Pinera, when Communist Party members such as Camila Vallejo led the students. Vallejo is now a member of Congress and a Bachelet ally, but the key university student unions are led by anarchists who are vowing to make life impossible for Bachelet if she doesn't follow through.

"We had an experience with these promises and it didn't turn out well. But we've learned the lesson," said Naschla Aburman, president of the Universidad Catolica student federation. "The urgency of the educational crisis that we're living doesn't allow us to give her a honeymoon."

Chile is the world's top copper exporter, and its fast-growing economy, low unemployment and inflation have been the envy of Latin America. But many Chileans say more of its mineral wealth should be spent on reducing income inequality and making quality education accessible to all.

Many blame Gen. Augusto Pinochet's 1973-90 dictatorship for concentrating wealth and power. Pinochet privatized water resources and ended agrarian reforms. He also eliminated central control and funding of public schools, enabling wealthy communities to take care of their own and impoverishing most of the country's schools.

Bachelet, the daughter of a general who died of torture after challenging Pinochet, became Chile's first female defense minister and president, and after leaving the presidency was the first leader of the U.N. women's agency. Four years later, she was still the center-left's best hope, and reluctantly returned to campaign.

She did so as the leader of a "New Majority" coalition that welcomed Communists, street activists and former student leaders, and won in December by the widest margin in eight decades of presidential elections.

Chile's well-managed economy thrived under Pinera, but metals prices have dropped and growth has slowed just when Bachelet hopes to take in about $8.2 billion in taxes from businesses to fund her education reform.

Pinera was praised for reconstruction efforts after an 8.8-magnitude earthquake devastated part of the country days before he took office, and his management of the rescue of 33 trapped minors brought him global fame.

His popularity plunged amid clashes between police and protesters, but bounced back after he took strong positions against dictatorship-era abuses. The billionaire former airline now plans to form a foundation, stay in the public eye and move his conservative coalition to the political center for another shot at the presidency in four years.

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