Why education and dancing hold the key to Chile's election

Students calling for reform of private schooling are central to presidential vote

Santiago

Chileans will vote for a president on Sunday, and polls suggest they will endorse Michelle Bachelet, a left-leaning medic who previously held the country’s top job from 2006 to 2010.

The likelihood of her victory is in large part due to four years of unpopular right-wing rule, and a social dispute that has seen students take to the streets en masse to call for free and quality education.

Walk around the capital, Santiago, and the pavements are clean and the public transport system efficient. The economy is the most stable in South America and grew a steady five per cent last year. Yet behind the success are a series of issues that presidential candidates have been forced to address – and no more so than education.

“Chile has the most neoliberal model in the world,” says Mario Waissbluth, head of Educación 2020, a non-profit organisation looking to overhaul the educational system. “The UK and the US, bastions of capitalism, look socialist compared to us and 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 with low taxes and minimal public spending on pensions, education and healthcare, allowing the private sector to wade in. The education system is the most market-driven on the planet with 90 per cent of university education and 35 per cent of secondary schools run by the private sector.

The reason Ms Bachelet, and her trailing right-wing rival Evelyn Matthei, have been forced to listen is due to a long-running protest movement by secondary school kids that finally gained international notoriety in 2011, when the torch was taken up by universities.

Months of clashes ensued between students and the heavy-handed ‘Carabineros’, the green-uniformed police force made infamous during the dictatorship. Impassioned student leaders such as Camila Vallejo – now running as a Communist party candidate for deputy in Sunday’s elections – spoke about the need for free higher education. But the government of Sebastián Piñera, the billionaire incumbent, did little to change the status quo. In July 2011 he infamously went on television declaring that education was a “consumer good” only to try and retract his clumsy words hours later.

Ms Bachelet and Ms Matthei know each other well – their fathers, both air force generals, were once great friends – but their fortunes differed greatly after Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup. Ms Bachelet’s father was tortured and died in prison. Ms Matthei’s father became head of the air force.

While Ms Matthei, the officially nominated Alianza candidate, has built her campaign on maintaining the economic success of the past – neoliberal policies that were initially implemented by the dictatorship – Ms Bachelet and her Nueva Mayoría coalition has promised a new direction.

“Bachelet knows that she has to provide some sort of institutional solution to the political and social demands that have been going on for a while,” explains Robert Funk, a political scientist from the University of Chile.

In secondary schooling, establishments are accused of being highly segregated with the rich going to good schools and the poor going to bad ones. Decentralised public education also means the impoverished fare worse, while the state also provides a per capita subsidy across the board – which goes directly to institutions – meaning competition for students is fierce.

When it comes to higher education, the wealthy students often get places at public universities that still rank among the most prestigious.

Iván Belmar Vidal, 26, had to give up his studies in 2011 due to spiralling debts acquired at two private universities. He took out a state credit, which only allows you to change course once. When he changed twice he lost his credit and his parents had to start paying his fees directly. When money became tight, he had to drop out altogether.

“The people who go to the traditional universities tend to have the best secondary educations,” he says. “And he’s the big problem with the system: those with less resources have to attend the private universities.”

Although all higher education is meant to be not-for-profit, this has been systematically abused in the past and several directors have been imprisoned for illegal profiteering. The Universidad del Mar, for example, has been investigated for a number of irregularities and will be forced to close next year.

“Public opinion polls show that the new middle class is not against private education and debt because they realise this combination offers the chance of higher education,” says the University of Chile’s Robert Funk. “The problem is that the promise is proving to be hollow because when students graduate, they are either not finding jobs, or they’re finding jobs that don’t pay enough to pay the debt. And a large proportion drops out before they graduate but still have the burden of debt.”

Neither Ms Bachelet nor Ms Matthei is suggesting eradicating the proliferation of private education. Bachelet talks of “advancing towards a more just, quality education” by eradicating fees and ensuring everyone has access to a good education, while keeping the mixed system in place. Ms Matthei, meanwhile, ripped up a cheque during a televised presidential debate last month, saying she didn’t want the government to pay the fees of Chile’s richest students by allowing universal free education.

A recent IPSOS poll gave Ms Bachelet 35 per cent of voter intention among the nine candidates, while earlier polls suggested she would win enough votes on Sunday to avoid a second round runoff in December. But for some student leaders, who feel deceived by the way she dealt with 2006’s protest when she was first in power, her potential victory on Sunday won’t be a cause for celebration.

“On the surface her declarations seem closely aligned to the student movement,” Andrés Fielbaum, 26, outgoing president of the Student Federation of the University of Chile (FECh) told The Independent. “But when you look more closely, there are a lot of contradictions. Students need to have more of a say in deciding the system.”

Education may have risen to the top of the campaign agenda for the first time in a Chilean presidential election, but achieving political promises will be far from easy.

“If she [Bachelet] doesn’t reform education and the constitution quickly then the kids will be back on the streets soon,” says Funk.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Lena Dunham posing for an official portrait at Sundance 2015
people
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Sport
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
football
News
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
video
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea