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

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

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.