By LARRY ROHTER
Published: April 3, 2007
SANTIAGO, Chile, March 30 — 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 here 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 Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
But the immediate cause of Ms. 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 here 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 work and back home. Rather than symbolizing Chile’s prosperity and progress, the new Transantiago plan has instead come to represent official ineptness and has made a mockery of Ms. Bachelet’s vow to lead a government that would listen to and heed popular concerns.
“It is not routine that a president comes before the nation and says, ‘Things have not been done properly here,’ ” Ms. 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.”
To her critics, though, Ms. Bachelet’s apology has been typical of what they see as one the main flaws of her presidency. They maintain that she is almost always too timid and responds to challenges with too little, 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 Tomás Duval, an analyst at the conservative Liberty Institute, a research and advocacy group that is aligned with the opposition. “She confronts problems only when they reach almost an incendiary state, and that is her weakness.”
Ms. 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 Ms. 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.
Ms. 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 General 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.
“The expectations she unleashed have not been fulfilled, in part because her team was not trained to govern and it wasn’t clear where the decision-making centers were to be,” said Ricardo Israel, director of the School of Juridical and Social Sciences at the Autonomous University of Chile here. “For a few months, that may be O.K., but you can’t tolerate that after a year.”
Some of the same observations have been made about Ms. Bachelet herself. Unlike her predecessors, she had never held elective office before winning the presidential vote, nor had she run one of the four parties in the governing coalition. She was picked to run mainly because polls showed that she was popular with voters, who viewed her as warm and sympathetic.
“Michelle Bachelet sees herself as an advocate of the people, an ombudswoman whose style of leadership is always to be indignant,” said Patricio Navia, a newspaper columnist and a professor of political science at Diego Portales University here and at New York University. “She complains and criticizes the shortcomings of the authorities as if they were not her responsibility.”
Ms. Bachelet seemed to be trying to remedy that problem when she announced a cabinet shake-up March 26. She fired her much faulted transport minister, appointed new defense, justice, energy and environment ministers, and removed one of her closest friends as her chief of staff and replaced her with a canny and veteran political operative, José Antonio Viera-Gallo.
There seems to be little she can do, however, about the corruption case and an official inquiry stemming from it. About $800,000 in government funds appears to have been diverted from sports programs to political campaigns of candidates belonging to the coalition, again during previous governments, not Ms. Bachelet’s administration.
Ms. Bachelet has promised that her own government will be “as transparent as an aquarium.” Mr. Lagos Weber described the irregularities as “an isolated instance” and their emergence now as a sign that Chilean democracy is healthy.
“There is no such culture of corruption, and Chile is not a corrupt country,” he said. “If it were, an amount this size would not have generated the public indignation that it has, and there would not be seven people apprehended. That says volumes about the way institutions operate in Chile.”
But Mr. Israel said he was concerned about the reluctance of the government to acknowledge that a problem existed and that it might be more widespread than thought. “Corruption could signify for Chilean democracy what human rights was for the dictatorship,” he said, “an Achilles’ heel that causes the coalition to lose the moral superiority it enjoys.”