On March 11, Sebastián Piñera was sworn in for a second four-year term as president of Chile. He did so after gaining a powerful mandate from voters, who elected him in a run-off with 54.6 percent of votes. During the campaign, Piñera benefited from an unpopular government led by socialist Michelle Bachelet and her leftist New Majority coalition (2014-2018). Despite implementing a key educational reform that considerably expanded free higher education for Chile’s youth, as well as overseeing the passage of milestone civil rights laws (including civil unions for same-sex couples and the decriminalization of abortion under certain circumstances), the Bachelet government’s popularity was weakened by an influence-peddling scandal involving her family and poor economic growth.
Immediately after Piñera’s presidential inauguration, the successful businessman remained largely popular among Chileans, with an average approval rating of 56 percent, according to Cadem, a local polling firm. Yet, just five months into his new presidency, Piñera has seen his popularity drop. A result of lofty expectations of economic recovery and controversies created by members of his cabinet, his sudden decline in popularity may mark an abrupt end of a presidential honeymoon.
Much of Piñera’s campaign focused on regaining economic growth. Under his slogan “better times are coming,” Piñera and his center-right coalition, Chile Vamos, promised voters that his government would re-spark the economy. Piñera’s credentials on the subject are widely known: during his first government (2010-2014), Chile’s economy averaged 5.3 percent growth. In comparison, economic activity drastically fell during Bachelet’s second presidency, with a mean growth of only 1.7 percent.
Now, Chile’s economy is regaining momentum. In June, the Central Bank’s Monthly Indicator of Economic Activity (IMACEC) was 4.9 percent. Though the economy is well on track, Chileans do not perceive that the situation is getting better. A recent poll showed that 64 percent believe that the economy is either stagnating or declining. Even former president Bachelet, who oversaw low levels of economic growth, recently criticized the government by saying that the economy is weak. Seemingly, Piñera and his allies have over-promised and under-delivered on the economy.
Please watch what you say
A second aspect that explains the end of Piñera’s honeymoon is his outspoken cabinet. The controversies that have arisen from their statements have surely given Piñera more than one headache, and in turn made Chileans begin to turn their backs on the president. The most recent controversy came from a response from his Minister of Education, Gerardo Varelad, to a question about the country’s educational infrastructure: “Every day I receive complaints from people who want the Ministry to fix the roof of a school that has a leak, or a classroom that has a bad floor, and I ask myself, ‘why don’t they organize a bingo?’” Varela’s statements simply extended a polemical history of the government directly challenging student movements (a weak spot for center-right governments in Chile). At the same time, there has been a rise of gender violence, which has helped fuel the country’s growing feminist movement (with women’s rights another weak spot for center-right governments in Chile). After Varela’s controversial bingo statement, the government’s disapproval rating rose by 20 percentage points, reaching 55 percent. Piñera’s approval also suffered, falling to 49 percent, marking a five percentage point drop since the last poll and falling below 50 percent for the first time.
In an attempt to stem his growing unpopularity, Piñera reshuffled his cabinet last Thursday. He replaced the discredited Varela with Marcela Cubillos, the Minister of Environment. In Cubillos’ place, Piñera designated Carolina Schmidt, a former cabinet member during his first presidency. Piñera also made changes in the Ministry of Culture, where embattled Minister Alejandra Pérez was alienated after showing unfamiliarity in her post by seeking to implement policies already in place. Piñera appointed Mauricio Rojas, a former leftist who became a close confident of Piñera after working on his campaign as a speechwriter, as the new Minister of Culture.
Is resurrection possible?
By reshuffling his cabinet, Piñera sought to reinvigorate his government. Yet, in this case, the cure proved to be worse than the disease. Hours after taking on the post as Minister of Culture, La Tercera re-published a recent interview with Rojas. In the interview, Rojas severely criticized Chile’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights, labeling it as a montage that “shamelessly and deceitfully” represented a national tragedy. The museum commemorates the widespread violation of human rights that took place under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-1990), during which, according to the country’s two truth commissions, the government assassinated or forcefully disappeared approximately 3,000 Chileans and tortured another 30,000.
Paradoxically, in an interview published barely two weeks ago, the now-disgraced Rojas said, “I see the opposition quite confused, I would say more, we are playing alone.” By undermining the violation of human rights, Rojas single-handedly united a disorganized opposition under the flag of human rights. On August 13, less than 90-hours after being nominated to the post, Rojas handed in his resignation.
Piñera now faces two main challenges. In the short-term, Piñera’s government needs to align citizens’ economic outlooks with actual outcomes, a difficult feat after Piñera staked his campaign on a platform of economic recovery. Fortunately for Piñera, Chile’s economy is flourishing. Just last month, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projected that Chile would grow by 3.4% this year, well above the 1.6% estimated for the rest of Latin America. Still, Piñera knows that good economic performance does not necessarily translate into higher approval ratings (as evidenced by his first presidency, when despite growth Piñera suffered a net disapproval over his term).
Ensuring the benefits of economic growth are shared and appreciated needs to go hand in hand with a more challenging goal: proving that he deserved to return to La Moneda (Chile’s White House) because he can deliver change. Appointing a new cabinet member, only to accept his resignation days later, reveals poor judgment on the part of the president and his advisers. By naming ministers who show inexperience in their posts, refuse to do their work, or, more disturbingly, speak out against the institutions that are a reminder of the terrible crimes against humanity in the country’s not-too-distant past, Piñera is failing to respond to the needs of Chileans who demand change without neglecting the past.
There is still time for Piñera to improve these self-inflicted setbacks. But in a four-year presidency without immediate re-election, each day counts. So far it seems that the “better days” Piñera repeatedly promised on the campaign trail are yet to come.
Lucas Perelló is a PhD candidate in Politics at The New School for Social Research.