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Chile’s embattled president faces test in local polls


Michelle Bachelet

Michelle Bachelet

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet faces a test of strength Sunday in municipal elections that will serve as a political barometer with just over a year to go in her term.

The local polls are the last vote before general elections in 2017 that will decide the Socialist leader’s successor, at a time when the left in Chile — as in much of Latin America — is struggling.

The vote comes as Bachelet, Chile’s first woman president, has been sideswiped by a corruption scandal involving her son and is struggling to deliver on the reform agenda that got her elected by a landslide in 2013.

Opinion polls give Bachelet’s center-left coalition a razor-thin lead going into the polls, which will elect 346 mayors, plus city councils.

The elections serve as the unofficial opening of the 2017 campaign season.

After testing the political waters in the local polls, the country’s parties will nominate their presidential candidates and launch their campaigns.

On the left, the top name currently being floated is Isabel Allende — not to be confused with her distant relative of the same name, who is a best-selling novelist.

She is a senator and the daughter of former president Salvador Allende, who was overthrown by late dictator Augusto Pinochet in a 1973 coup.

Journalist and independent Senator Alejandro Guillier also scores well in opinion polls. And former president Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006) has thrown his hat in the ring, too.

On the right, former president Sebastian Pinera (2010-2014) is tipped as the likely nominee, but has yet to declare his candidacy.

– Corruption, slowdown –

Bachelet, 65, is one of the last remaining leaders from a “pink tide” of left-wing governments that swept Latin America in the last decade.

She served a first term from 2006 to 2010, and — constitutionally barred from immediate re-election — returned in 2014.

But her popularity has plunged since accusations emerged last year that her son and his wife used political influence and inside information to make $5 million on a shady real estate deal.

A separate campaign-finance scandal involving some of the country’s biggest firms and political parties has also been damaging.

Bachelet herself has not been implicated in either scandal. But they have hurt her image as a squeaky clean reformer.

Elected with 66 percent of the vote, her popularity now stands at just 23 percent.

With protesters calling for her resignation, Bachelet’s promises to overhaul the education and pension systems and change a constitution inherited from Pinochet’s repressive 17-year rule have all but ground to a halt.

The local polls come amid an economic slowdown in Chile, hit hard — like much of the region — by the plunge in global commodity prices.

Chile, the world’s top copper producer, will see economic growth of just 1.75 percent this year, before a pickup of 2.25 percent in 2017, the government

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Michelle Bachelet
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