Piñera Back, But Chileans Need Convincing

Chile is now more divided than at any time since 1990. Sebastián Piñera will have to walk a fine line.

Sebastián Piñera gives a speech days before the end of his first term as president of Chile, March 3, 2014
Sebastián Piñera gives a speech days before the end of his first term as president of Chile, March 3, 2014 (Gobierno de Chile)

Sebastián Piñera unsurprisingly won back Chile’s presidency last week, defeating the governing party’s Alejandro Guillier in a runoff.

Piñera last ruled the country from 2010 to 2014 but was constitutionally barred from serving a consecutive second term.

What was surprising was the scale of his victory following a weak performance in the first voting round, where left-wing candidates got a combined 55 percent of the votes.

Looking for alternatives

Piñera succeeds Michelle Bachelet, who earlier served as president from 2006 to 2010.

By 2020, the two will have held sway for sixteen years between them. It seems this familiarity has brought with it if not contempt then a degree of apathy. Only 46 percent of Chileans voted in the first round.

Guillier, a senator and popular TV anchor, matched lowly expectations. He was marred by the departure of the once-powerful Christian Democrats from the center-left coalition.

A corruption scandal involving the president’s daughter-in-law and falling copper prices have turned Bachelet’s second term, once full of hope and ambition, into one of stagnation and disappointment. Education, tax and constitutional reforms are incomplete. Chile remains one of the least equal countries in the developed world.

The principal beneficiary of this disillusionment in the major parties has been the progressive Broad Front. Their leader, Beatriz Sánchez, almost bested Guillier for second place with 20 to 23 percent support.

Two-pronged approach

In the end it was Piñera who won over centrist voters. He did this by adopting a two-pronged approach.

On the one hand, he incorporated several of Bachelet’s initiatives to tackle inequality into his own manifesto.

On the other, he whipped up fears that a Guillier presidency propped up by the Broad Front would result in Venezuelan-style economic hardship.

This worked to great effect. Some 330,000 more voters showed up in the second round, the majority to elect Piñera.

Divided

But he cannot rest easy. Chile is now more divided than at any time since 1990 and without a majority in either house Piñera would do well to implement the Bacheletian policies he campaigned on.

The introduction of proportional representation in Congress means that the Broad Front now has a sizable delegation that can be expected to agitate against Piñera’s reforms. They have already come out against a proposal to once again allow profit-making in education, barred under Bachelet.

Piñera will have to work with other parties if he is to stand a chance of reducing corporate tax and reversing some of the left’s social reforms.

Bucking the trend

Where the incoming president can expect to find congressional support is in his desire to address the fiscal deficit in response to rising debt levels.

He can also proceed confidently with Bachelet’s successful green energy program, which in the last four years has lowered household energy prices and attracted $17 billion in investment, even more than the copper industry.

Copper still accounts for 60 percent of Chile’s exports and prices have gone up by a quarter in the last year.

If Piñera can use this windfall to soften the blow of fiscal reforms and reach out to other parties to govern, he may be able to buck the trend of polarization that prevails in Europe and North America.

But if he overplays his hand and reads too much into what might feel like an historic victory, he could entrench divisions and preside over a government that is high on rhetoric and low on action.