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Chilean Voters Want Michelle Bachelet Back Home


Michelle Bachelet of UN Women in India
Michelle Bachelet, the UN Women chief, in Jaipur, India, on Oct. 4, 2012, for a national leadership summit, lighting a ceremonial candle. GAGANJIT SINGH CHANDOK/UN WOMEN

A series of opinion polls in recent months in Chile show that Michelle Bachelet, the executive director of UN Women, is still the most popular Chilean politician three years after her four-year term as the country’s president ended. Reports from Chile say that across the political spectrum, party officials are assuming she will be returning soon to start a campaign for the next  presidential election, in December 2013. Chilean presidents cannot serve consecutive terms but may seek re-election after a four-year break.

All that is missing from the picture is a confirmation from Bachelet that she will indeed be a candidate. Or not.

Rumors have been circulating around the United Nations that Bachelet would be gone from New York by year’s end or by early in 2013, long before she even accepted the appointment to launch UN Women as its first executive director. The agency was created by the General Assembly in July 2010 and began operating in January 2011.

UN officials say that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon put weeks of persuasion into getting Bachelet to accept the position. She was the favorite of many if not most women’s organizations and other advocates for a more powerful agency devoted to women’s issues, but she seemed reluctant to turn her back on Chile, even for a few years. A trailblazer for women in Chilean politics – the first woman to serve as defense minister and later to be elected president of the country – she apparently finally agreed to accept the UN appointment based on the understanding that she might leave after a few years to return to Chile.

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Her deadline to make a decision is fast approaching. There are still months to go before presidential candidates are required to register formally, but other politicians thinking of challenging Bachelet’s left-of-center alliance of parties, the Concertación, are already sizing themselves up against her as their expected rival. Opinion polls, backing her from 45 percent to more than 50 percent, show no other potential candidate close to her at this point.

Even the current conservative president, Sebastián Piñera, acknowledged in a meeting with journalists at the Financial Times in London in November that Chileans were naturally inclined to vote for the political left, though he said (not surprisingly) that this penchant would lead Chile down the path of Spain, where government as well as personal spending helped create a severe economic crisis. Chile’s economy is among the strongest in Latin America, with annual growth rates in recent years at 5 or 6 percent. Income gaps, however, remain large. Bachelet, a socialist, says that it is the government’s obligation to relieve poverty.

As executive director of UN Women, Bachelet focused immediately on some of the underlying situations that hold women back in all aspects of their lives, particularly in the inequities of economic development and the lack of legal protection and access to justice. In November, she called for bolder steps globally to end “the scourge of violence” against women and girls. “Now is the time for governments to translate international promises into concrete national action.”

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Bachelet’s two years as executive director of UN Women have not been easy. Institutionally, the new agency – formally if not clumsily titled the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women – was created by eliminating four other bodies:  the Division for the Advancement of Women, the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women, the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women and the United Nations Development Fund for Women. Jobs were expected to be found for officials from those defunct offices. A turf war was inevitable among other UN agencies, and Bachelet’s freedom to form and staff her own agency was constricted.

Perhaps more damaging has been the reluctance of governments, many of which were halfhearted from the start about a more powerful women’s agency, to provide the money needed to give UN Women a strong start. Advocates for the agency had hoped for an operating budget of about $1 billion over two years. On Nov. 28, Bachelet told her executive board the reality.

“In 2011, we managed to raise $227 million, which represented an 80 percent increase in core resources and 60 percent in noncore resources compared to previous years,” she said. “This year, our projections bring us to a total of $233 million, which means we can surpass last year’s level, although we will still not reach our funding target of $300 million per year.” Another $3 million-plus annually comes from the private sector, she said. Such small sums do not support a powerful presence globally.

“We need you, member states, to urgently honor your pledges and ensure that they are paid before 15 December so that they can be accounted for in 2012,” she told the board. “We also need new pledges, and we need member states to prioritize and front load your contributions at this critical time.”

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We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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