Chilean billionaire president’s legacy swept away by unrest
As riots broke out across Chile in October, President Sebastian Pinera saw his political agenda go up in smoke.
Barely 18 months after taking office promising to expand the private pension system, cut taxes for the rich and crack down on crime, Pinera has seen his legislative projects swept away by the biggest street protests and riots since return of democracy in 1990.
Each of its flagship policies is now abandoned, reversed or revised. Under the leadership of a new finance minister, the government’s efforts are focused on appeasing protesters by increasing spending, reversing election promises to reduce the budget deficit. Pinera’s biggest concession, a plan to rewrite the constitution, was negotiated by lawmakers from almost all major parties. The president, who resisted calls for resignation, did not endorse it until two days later.
“Its manifesto and its policies are gone, finished, finished,” said Javier Sajuria, Chilean lecturer at Queen Mary University in London. “He could well become an administrator of a political program defined by the parties in Congress.”
At two and a half years into his tenure, Pinera’s approval rating has dropped to 12%, according to Cadem’s latest poll. Some opposition lawmakers have even started an impeachment process, although it is unlikely to be successful.
It’s hard for a billionaire accustomed to success. He was elected at the end of 2017 for a second non-consecutive term because he was seen as efficient, someone who could translate his business skills into faster economic growth for the country.
For the first year, everything seemed to be going well. Growth soared to 5.3% in the second quarter of 2018 – his first three months in office – and investment soared. But by 2019, things had started to turn bad.
The economy was in decline, growing only 1.5% in the first quarter, and Pinera’s pension and tax reforms were blocked in Congress. Worse yet, a bill aimed at easing the labor market had been hijacked by the opposition, which wanted to reduce the work week to 40 hours.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, the protests erupted and Pinera’s reform package became an old story overnight.
Protesters want better pensions, education and health care, as well as a new constitution. But they don’t want the kind of piecemeal little spending increases Pinera proposed, they want a real welfare state. After 30 years of being told they are living in Latin America’s miracle economy, they want to see the benefits.
The president is now pushing back calls from the far right to suppress protests and the far left demanding his resignation.
“It is no longer Pinera’s government, because its agenda has disappeared,” said Robert Funk, professor of political science at the University of Chile. “The government is now responsive, constantly changing according to the demands of the streets.”
From the start of the anti-government protests, Pinera struggled to respond appropriately.
After calling the military on the first night, the president declared war on the protesters. It was a mistake. Within days, he backed down, apologized and called the protesters’ demands legitimate.
âI was surprised by his constant inability to read the situation and provide answers,â said Funk. “But ultimately the government must find answers.”
Now others are taking over. It was a common joke in the past that Pinera’s finance minister was Pinera himself. Not anymore. Less than two weeks after the outbreak of social rage, the president sacked eight ministers, including his longtime finance minister Felipe Larrain. Entered Ignacio Briones with a soft voice and gentle manners.
More than anyone, it is Briones who sets the economic agenda. It was he who agreed with opposition lawmakers to increase the minimum pension by 50% within three years.
The protest movement is now in its sixth week and in many of the poorest parts of the country it has escalated into a wave of looting and arson. Hotels were ransacked, public buildings burned, shops looted and traffic lights destroyed.
While the wealthy neighborhoods of Santiago continue pretty much normally, life in the low-income neighborhoods is severely disrupted. As the economic cost rises, the peso fell to an all-time high on Wednesday and Thursday, prompting the central bank to step in, offering up to $ 10 billion in the spot market. This is equivalent to a quarter of its total foreign currency reserves. The peso gained 2.3% on Friday.
Now Pinera is trying to rally support for a new public order agenda, pushing bills banning face masks in protests, easing the call for the military to defend infrastructure, and increasing the number of police in the area. Street. Some in the opposition are starting to align.
“Now is the time to say enough!” Pinera said at a press conference on Wednesday. “It is time for us to unite in our commitment and determination to fight violence.”
Stay in power
Yet whenever he has tried to lay down the law in the past, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch or another organization have said that the police have systematically used excessive force.
Some opposition MPs have filed a constitutional charge against him for alleged human rights violations committed by the security forces. While impeachment is unlikely to win the required two-thirds of the senators required, the backlash against Pinera has often forced him to change his tone and promise to investigate cases of abuse.
“He could have been the president who led the transition,” Sajuria said. “But he doesn’t have the credibility for it.”
Whatever happens, Pinera is likely to limp to the finish line of his tenure.
âI don’t think he will resign,â Sajuria said. “It’s not in his personality to do that. We have a very presidential system and when that president is weak, there’s no easy way out of this power vacuum.”