By Simeon Tegel
Sebastian Piñera’s rollercoaster ride as president of Chile may be a watershed in the nation’s post-Pinochet politics. Simeon Tegel reports.
If anyone embodies the theory that being a skilful politician requires more than just brains, then it may well be Sebastian Piñera.
A self-made billionaire with an economics PhD from Harvard, Chile’s president has seen his popularity ratings plunge to the low 20s just two years after his March 2010 election.
That is about as low as it gets in a stable, modern democracy – and a stunning fall from Piñera’s October 2010 high of 63%, according to pollster Adimark, following his hands-on leadership of the rescue of 33 miners trapped half-a-mile underground for more than two months.
Gaffe-prone and viewed as aloof, the 62-year-old president has seen his ambitions of re-election go up in smoke as the perception has taken hold that he simply does not understand the tribulations of ordinary Chileans.
The verbal clangers have become so common that Chileans, trapped uneasily between laughing at their president and an acute sense of national embarrassment, have even come to term them “Piñerias”.
Piñera caused widespread mortification in Chile last year when he signed the German presidency’s visitors book with the words “Deutschland Uber Alles”, presumably unaware that the words come from a stanza of his hosts’ national anthem that has been disused since 1945 as a result of its Nazi associations.
And as he attempted to warn of the risk of a tsunami following the Christchurch earthquake in February 2011, Piñera was the subject of ridicule as he mispronounced the Spanish word for tidal wave, “maremoto”, as “marepoto”.
It should be understood that “poto” is South American Spanish for “bottom”, the kind of hilarious malapropism that might have proved beyond even George W Bush.
Yet behind the clumsy soundbites and extensive business empire that included major stakes in LAN, Latin America’s largest airline and a TV station, Piñera’s failure to resonate with his compatriots may say more about Chile than it does about the president.
Piñera remains Chile’s only elected rightwing president in half-a-century. And his win, in January 2010, over progressive Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei, was by a razor-thin majority, 51.6% to 48.4%.
Or, as many commentators have noted, contemporary Chile is at heart a centre-left society which, as a result of a confluence of temporary factors, elected a conservative government that it quickly came to repudiate.
And complicating the mix is the ongoing process of Chile’s coming to terms with the legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship. For the modern democratic right, with Piñera at its head, that process is proving particularly awkward.
One small example is the row that erupted at the beginning of the year over the proposal to describe the unelected Pinochet administration in school textbooks as a “military regime” rather than a “dictatorship”.
The government eventually backtracked but the furore is indicative of how modern Chile, despite an official truth and reconciliation process, continues to carry heavy baggage from the Pinochet era.
Beyond the moral dilemma of balancing justice with national reconciliation, Chile also faces major challenges regarding the structuring of its economy, with many deeply unhappy at the neoliberal reforms imposed on the country by the Pinochet regime without the legitimacy of an electoral mandate.
Chileans, for example, are required by law to have private health insurance and pension funds. Those reforms have helped set the stage for a remarkable economic success story. GDP is expected to grow by 6% this year and poverty has fallen from 45% of the population in the 1980s to just 15% now.
Yet many Chileans remain deeply unhappy. The clue to the cause of that unease can be found in the fact that Chile is, notoriously, the most unequal society in the OECD, a club of the world’s 34 richest democracies.
And nowhere has that tension been more evident than in Chile’s education system, which, critics say, has locked in that inequality from generation to generation.
By most international standards, Chile’s schools and universities, both public and private, perform poorly and far below the rest of the national economy.
The schools are run on a voucher-system established under Pinochet, yet with Chilean teachers falling behind international standards. Meanwhile, even the state universities are largely funded by tuition fees, which overall provide around 80% of the national higher education budget, and represent a huge hurdle for students from poorer families.
The result has been the face-off that has pitted Piñera against Camila Vallejo, the charismatic, photogenic 23-year-old Communist Party member who has become the figurehead for a wave of student protests that swept Chile in 2011 and 2012, with the aim of winning free, quality university education for all.
The Communist Party is challenged to break into double-digit support in Chile. Nevertheless, the confrontation between the student leader, with a pierced nose and penchant for sit-ins, and the billionaire businessman turned president, has proved utterly one-sided, with Piñera getting battered on the ropes almost from the word go.
And the student protests have merged with demonstrators calling for a primal soup of other demands including everything from cheaper petrol to an attempt to stop the construction of hydroelectric dams in Aysén, a remote, breathtaking stretch of Patagonia. The result has convulsed Chile.
The president has made some concessions, including a proposed tax reform aimed at raising an additional £435 million a year for the education system, equivalent to 0.3% of GDP. He has also proposed capping interest on student loans at 2%.
Yet that is a long way from the students’ main demand, backed by 70% of the population, according to polls, of free higher education for all.
But with the leftwing Concertación alliance now faring almost as badly in the polls as Piñera, Chilean politics seem ripe for a historic political reconfiguration, possibly involving electoral wipe-outs for the traditional forces of left and right.
Only time will tell if that turns out to be the president’s lasting legacy.
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