Wed, Apr 04, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Transport fiasco in Chile saps Bachelet's popularity


What Michelle Bachelet promised when she was sworn in as Chile's first female president a little over a year ago was social justice and continued economic stability.

What Chile faces at the moment, though, is a nagging corruption scandal and chaos in the transportation system in the capital, which have combined to sap her popularity.

The corruption allegations, which involve a state sports agency and first emerged late last year, have been a boon to a right-wing opposition tainted by its links to the dictatorship of late general Augusto Pinochet.

But the immediate cause of Bachelet's troubles is a costly new integrated subway and bus system that was supposed to be one of the most modern in the world.

Instead, commuters in the capital region, which is home to more than one-third of Chile's 16 million people, are wasting hours every day getting to and from work. The new Transantiago plan has come to represent official ineptness.

"It is not routine that a president comes before the nation and says, `Things have not been done properly here,'" Bachelet said in a televised speech on March 26, during which she also announced a revamped Cabinet for the second time in less than a year. "But that is exactly what I want to say tonight in the Transantiago case."

But to her critics, Bachelet's apology has been typical of what they see as one of her main flaws. They maintain that she is too timid and responds too late.

"Hers is a style of leadership that is not traditional, that tries to avoid conflicts and would rather flee than confront a problem," said Tomas Duval, an analyst at the conservative Liberty Institute, an advocacy group that is aligned with the opposition. "She confronts problems only when they reach almost an incendiary state."

Bachelet did not originate the flawed transit plan, which she inherited from the previous government. But she is from the same party as her predecessor, Ricardo Lagos Escobar, and has been saddled with the blame for the fiasco: A weekly magazine specializing in political satire put her on its cover wearing an orange traffic cone as a dunce cap.

Ricardo Lagos Weber, the government's spokesman and a son of the former president, agrees that Bachelet's way of doing things is not traditional, but he sees that as a good thing.

"To say `mea culpa' in language that is not cryptic or elliptical is a sign of real leadership," he said.

Bachelet, a Socialist and a pediatrician, was elected early last year promising a greater emphasis on distributing the fruits of the extraordinary economic growth Chile has enjoyed since democracy was restored in 1990, when Pinochet was forced to step down. She also pledged gender parity in government appointments, as well as a generational change.

She proved to be as good as her word, appointing a Cabinet that had many fresh new faces and as many women as men. But now she appears to be paying a political price for having brought into the government so many officials who are not only relatively inexperienced but who also lack political muscle.

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