Piñera Back, But Chileans Need Convincing

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. Read more

Chile Shows Better Way to Neighbors in Crisis

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and Chilean president Michelle Bachelet attend a multilateral summit in Lima, Peru, November 20, 2016
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and Chilean president Michelle Bachelet attend a multilateral summit in Lima, Peru, November 20, 2016 (Gobierno de Chile)

Whether change comes swiftly or slowly, a deafness to cries for change can discredit not just politicians or political parties but whole systems of government.

This has already happened in Venezuela. It’s in the process of happening in Brazil. Chile, however slowly, is showing a better way. Read more

Scandals Could Derail Chile’s Constitutional Rewrite

President Michelle Bachelet of Chile makes a speech, September 17
President Michelle Bachelet of Chile makes a speech, September 17 (Gobierno de Chile)

Last month, Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, announced the beginning of the long-awaited process of rewriting the Latin American country’s constitution. Read more

Ending the Permanent Draw: Chile’s Controversial Constitutional Reform

President Michelle Bachelet of Chile answers questions from reporters, April 25
President Michelle Bachelet of Chile answers questions from reporters, April 25 (Gobierno de Chile)

Last month, Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, signed into law the first major bill that aims to fulfil her electoral promise of constitutional reform. The bill is designed to overhaul the country’s unpopular binomial electoral system, designed in 1984 by Augusto Pinochet’s military regime, to preserve the power of the right wing after Chile’s transition to democracy.

Chile is currently the only country in the world to use the binomial system, its only other use being Poland’s brief experiment with the process during the 1980s.

Under the binomial model, two parliamentary seats are available per geographical constituency and seats are won by the two political parties with the highest percentage share of votes. Parties must obtain 33.4 percent of the vote to win one seat and 66.7 percent to win both.

The practical result is that Chile’s right-wing coalition has consistently retained half of the available congressional seats, despite only ever winning at most a third of the public vote.

During her election campaign, Bachelet termed the binomial system “a thorn in the heart of [Chile’s] democracy” and promised she would end what has been dubbed “the permanent draw” of Chilean politics.

As legacies of the Pinochet regime, the binomial system and Chile’s constitution, have never been popular. The dictatorship introduced binomial voting via its 1984 constitution, anticipating that Chile’s return to democracy would result in the marginalization of right-wing parties. At the same time, it redrew constituency boundaries to favor smaller, sparsely populated rural districts over which it had greater control.

The regime assumed that with the return of multiparty democracy, the left-wing vote would be too divided for leftist parties to win the majorities necessary to gain individual seats, or entire congressional districts. However, the political left, determined to rid Chile of the dictatorship which had ruled for almost two decades, banded together to form a coalition which has dominated Chilean politics ever since.

Nevertheless, while the left’s political success in the face of electoral disadvantage is no small achievement, the discipline required to preserve a stable coalition has come at the expense of political vibrancy. The right-wing’s response over the years has been to form their own coalition, resulting in a stalemate in which Chile’s legislature is split between left- and right-wing coalitions. Smaller political parties and independents are stifled by the coalition system, and politicians as well as ordinary citizens have grown impatient with the deadlock that has lasted for decades. constitutional reform therefore has public and crossparty support.

Despite this support, Bachelet’s reform bill met with opposition. It focuses solely on the reform of binomialism, seeking to move toward a system of proportional representation. Bachelet aims to increase the number of senators in the upper house of Chile’s legislature from thirty to fifty, while the the number of deputies in the lower house would increase from 120 to 155.

The bill also seeks to redefine constituency boundaries based on population size. The sixty existing voter districts would be fused into 27 constituencies, electing between three and eight officials. With more seats available in congressional districts, it is hoped that parties will avoid being forced into coalitions, being free to run against one another, thus stimulating political diversity.

The bill requires a three-fifths majority to make it into the statute books and therefore requires the support of right-wing and independent politicians to be made into law — the very politicians who may lose influence through the reforms.

Chile’s former conservative President, Sebastián Piñera, is among a number of lawmakers who have criticized the bill, stating that the increased number of legislators is unnecessary. During his own presidency, Piñera sought to introduce legislation which would, like Bachelet’s bill, redefine voter districts, but otherwise make minimal changes to the electoral process.

Bachelet also faces another tough battle on constitutional reform — the drafting of a new constitution itself. Galvanized by the desire for a new constitution among the Chilean public, a new civic organization, the Broad Front for a al Assembly, was created in March, comprised of former presidential candidates, lawyers, politicians and political activists. The organization’s aim is to push for the creation of a al Assembly, similar to those used in other Latin American countries.

Bachelet herself is rumored to favor the creation of an expert commission to draft a new constitution.

constitutional assemblies, though widely used across Latin America, have a less than sterling reputation. Members of assemblies are directly elected by the public, largely made up of candidates endorsed by whichever political party is in power at the time, and are thus highly politicized.

Though the aim of such assemblies is to make the final constitution reflective of the will of the public, members often lack expertise in constitutional law and institution building. Grassroots activists, which have previously formed the majority of such assemblies in Latin America, are not legal experts. al negotiations have frequently been tainted by delays, political deadlocks and allegations of populism, often being accused of failing to protect minorities. Bolivia’s Constitutional Assembly took two years to draft a new constitution, only to have it rejected in a referendum after the assembly itself lost legitimacy. In Ecuador, a similar assembly made up primarily of the president’s supporters, effectively dissolved the National Congress.

Bachelet is therefore in a difficult position. She will be forced to rely on her political opponents to push forward a bill that is likely to lose them influence. She also aims to create a popular, democratically legitimate constitution which represents the aspirations of Chileans keen to break with their dictatorial past, without descending into the type of chaos that has dogged the constitutional reforms of other Latin American countries.

Chile, Peru Resolve Maritime, Not Land Border, Dispute

Presidents Ollanta Humala of Peru and Michelle Bachelet of Chile meet in Santiago, March 11
Presidents Ollanta Humala of Peru and Michelle Bachelet of Chile meet in Santiago, March 11 (Presidencia Perú)

Late last month, an agreement was finally reached between Chile and Peru on a maritime border dispute that dated back to 1985. This followed a ruling by the International Court of Justice in The Hague which gave Peru over 70 percent of the disputed maritime territory. It is hoped that this will usher in a period of reconciliation and signal an end to border disputes in the region. As Peru’s president, Ollanta Humala, said following the ruling, “Peru has closed the book on the border issue.”

The longstanding rift dates back to the late nineteenth century when Bolivia and Peru on one side and Chile on the other fought the War of the Pacific. Bolivia had a coastline at the time that stretched from Antofagasta to Tocopilla, now both in Chile. As Chile was the economically stronger power and had invested heavily in southern Peru’s nitrate industry and Bolivia’s coastal mines, these two countries felt threatened and reacted through nationalizations and increased taxation.

After Bolivia failed to honor its obligations under an 1874 treaty that had seemed to stave off war, Chilean forces assumed control of the coastal areas and advanced on the Peruvian capital, Lima.

Peace was made with the 1883 Treaty of Ancón. What was formerly Bolivia’s coastline was finally confirmed as Chilean land in 1904. It was only 25 years later that the territorial issue with Peru, “the Question of the Pacific,” resulting from the Chilean invasion, was resolved. The former southern part of Peru, consisting of Iquique and Arica, was retained by Chile while the city of Tacna, north of Arica, was returned to Peru.

Tensions between the three countries continued to simmer throughout the twentieth century and incidents flared up on a number of occasions. In 1975, the regime of Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet offered Bolivia a territorial exchange, handing over former Peruvian territory, just north of Arica, as a pathway to the coast. General Juan Velasco, Peru’s own dictator, whose ideology lay at the other end of the political spectrum, saw this as a direct contravention of the Treaty of Ancón which declared that no former Peruvian territories would be passed on to other states. War was averted when the Peruvian leader fell ill and his successor, General Francisco Morales Bermúdez, spared the region another costly conflict.

In 2011, Peru agreed to a possible Chilean return of former Peruvian lands annexed in the War of the Pacific in exchange for facilitating a resolution of the maritime dispute.

Bolivia’s current leader, President Evo Morales, has not given up hope of one day recovering his country’s access to the sea. In the wake of the International Court of Justice’s ruling, Morales made his own appeal both to the court in the Netherlands and, in a rare request, to Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, to revive Pinochet’s offer.

Like Morales, Peru’s Humala, before the last election, did not appear content with the borders his country reluctantly accepted following the War of the Pacific a century or so ago. As recently as 2011, in a speech made in Tacna, Humala spoke of his desire to “Peruvianize” Arica. Privately, Peruvians said they believed Aricans would be hankering for Peruvian annexation by 2050.

Peru’s booming economy, its political decentralization to the frontier region and considerable investments in Tacna have led to substantial population growth in the region which now has almost 100,000 more residents than Arica.

It wasn’t always this way. In the 1970s, it was Arica that was thriving, in stark contrast to Tacna. However, the Chilean port has been in decline. The commune of Arica has the second lowest income per capita in Chile. The apparent neglect of the area, coupled with concerted Peruvian attempts to underline Tacna’s relative affluence, has left the Arican community disillusioned.

Arica is a cosmopolitan city and a hub for tourism with the majority of its inhabitants hailing from the three old border states. The locals say they are used to the political and diplomatic tensions that are imposed from above.

Now that the maritime borders are settled, Humala seeks to use the solution to set an example for border dispute resolution. With newly improved Chilean-Peruvian relations, it is to be hoped that the Bolivian land border claim can also be brought to a close amicably.

Chile’s Bachelet Pushes Ambitious Social Reform Agenda

Michelle Bachelet answers questions from reporters outside Chile's presidential residence in Santiago, January 7
Michelle Bachelet answers questions from reporters outside Chile’s presidential residence in Santiago, January 7 (michellebachelet.cl)

Since her inauguration ceremony last month, Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, has announced a series of policies aimed at proving to the public her desire for change.

Bachelet’s election campaign was based on an ambitious social reform agenda, focused on issues such as gender inequality and social welfare, as well as tax, education and constitutional reform. Her aims are similar to those of her first term in office, between 2006 and 2010, although she acknowledges that her previous government failed to bring about the change it sought. This was particularly the case for education and poverty, issues that led to mass protests and the eventually the downfall of the previous conservative government.

Bachelet’s first major step on taking office was to announce her “fifty measures in one hundred days,” an impressive list of commitments on issues ranging from education and health care to women’s rights and the environment. Legislation implementing these changes has already swept through Congress, the first bill signed into law creating new March and winter bonuses, aimed at assisting Chile’s poorest families during the toughest periods of Chile’s financial year.

A former director of UN Women, gender issues have always been close to Bachelet’s heart, and her first weeks in office resulted a bill proposing the creation of a Ministry for Women and Gender Equality. This body will oversee the implementation of a number of her gender policies, including access to secular sex education, reproductive rights, birth control and the decriminalization of therapeutic abortion. She also seeks to legalize gay marriage, building on the civil unions for gay couples introduced by her predecessor, Sebastián Piñera.

However, the most important aspect of her reforms is education, a sensitive issue that led to the “Penguin Protests” during Bachelet’s first government, as well as unprecedented levels of civil unrest under the Piñera administration.

In response to public outrage over the education policies of the previous government, Bachelet has promised an end to profit making universities, in addition to free university education within six years. She has also set herself the ambitious target of making university education available to Chile’s 70 percent most economically vulnerable students within four years.

To finance these initiatives, Bachelet proposes radical tax reform, raising the corporate tax rate from 20 to 25 percent, a figure more in line with other developed countries. She has also announced plans to clamp down on tax evasion and end the unpopular Taxable Profits Fund, a mechanism introduced by the military dictatorship to allow wealthy businessowners to register personal income as a corporate asset, thereby avoiding tax.

Despite the popularity of these initiatives, there are many on the Chilean right who question the viability of Bachelet’s reforms. The new socialist president is expected to spend more than $15 billion on her reforms, with only $8.2 billion generated by increased tax revenues.

Furthermore, although Chile stands out among Latin American economies for its growth and stability, the copper industry that has made it a success is flagging, due to a decline in Chinese demand. Even prior to Bachelet’s election, growth had started to slow, though the central bank still expects growth between 4 and 4.5 percent this year.

Bachelet’s plans have been met with feverish enthusiasm from a public visibly demanding change. Although she has always been a staunch advocate for social justice, reforms during her first term were noticeably more modest. However, it is clear that modest reform will no longer satisfy the Chilean public.

Under Bachelet’s predecessor, fuel prices, economic inequality and limited access to education resulted in protests and a national strike, supported by 70 percent of the population. Piñera’s image as a billionaire concerned only with big business cost his coalition government the election. Thus Bachelet cannot afford to be perceived as timid. She must be seen to be breaking from the past and demonstrate an unequivocal commitment to social justice to maintain public support. As such, many of the activists responsible for the protests under the last government have been co-opted by Bachelet, with the national union of students working directly with the new administration on education reform.

In a move designed to welcome Bachelet’s new government, and highlight the public’s demand for change, tens of thousands of Chileans marched through the streets of Santiago last month, in a rally dubbed “The March to End All Marches.” The event gathered together a variety of social groups keen to make their voices heard. Advocates for gay rights, indigenous groups, environmentalists and women’s rights united under one banner to show their support for social reform. Their message was clear: Chile expects change. But with expectations so high, it remains to be seen if Bachelet can deliver.

Resignations Cloud Bachelet’s Return to Chile’s Presidency

Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, then director of UN Women, visits in the European Parliament in Brussels, March 25, 2011
Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, then director of UN Women, visits in the European Parliament in Brussels, March 25, 2011 (European Parliament/Pietro Naj-Oleari)

Between protest marches and resignations, there has been no discernible honeymoon period for Chile’s new president, Michelle Bachelet. Riding high after her December election, drawing 62 percent of the vote, and  inheriting a thriving economy, Bachelet’s difficult first month has taken both her and the Chilean public by surprise.

Even before she entered La Moneda, Chile’s presidential palace, Bachelet’s fledgling government was rocked by the student activist movement whose protests helped her defeat Chile’s conservative coalition last year. As far back as January, weeks before Bachelet formally took office, Claudia Peirano, her nominee for education undersecretary, had come under fire. Within 24 hours of her nomination, there were calls from senior members in Bachelet’s own party urging Peirano not to accept the post, due to criticism from Chile’s powerful student movement.

Peirano has a background in education consultancy and in 2011, her firm signed a public letter stating its opposition to free university education. Her ex-husband, Walter Oliva, is also the director of a chain of privately run schools. Yet Bachelet’s election campaign had centered around the promise of free, universal university education and the resulting outcry from students, once Peirano’s views became public, forced her to decline the nomination.

A week before Bachelet’s March inauguration, incoming armed forces undersecretary Carolina Echeverría was also forced to step aside when it emerged that her father, Colonel Víctor Echeverría, was facing a lawsuit accusing him of torture during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. Though Bachelet insisted that Echeverría was not responsible for the alleged crimes of her father, having been a victim of torture during the military regime, public pressure on Echeverría made it impossible for her to join Bachelet’s government.

Further resignations took place as allegations of wrongdoing against four regional governors and two cabinet undersecretaries emerged, prior to Bachelet’s inauguration, prompting an emergency cabinet consultation. The allegations ranged from sexual assault to mismanagement of funds and there had been rumors that the opposition would attempt to summon Rodrigo Peñailillo, the incoming interior minister, for a parliamentary interrogation over the resignations.

There has also been criticism about the gender balance in Bachelet’s new government. While her first administration, between 2006 and 2010, was evenly split in terms of men and women, the current government is made up of fourteen men and nine women with surprisingly few members from the president’s own Socialist Party.

Bachelet, the former executive director of UN Women, explained, “I would have liked a team completely balanced in terms of gender and clearly this has not happened. But I accept the tremendous challenge we have as a country — to incorporate more women into positions of responsibility.”

The gender imbalance is probably the result of discussions between the government’s coalition parties, with an even gender split sacrificed to ensure it reflects parties’ congressional influence.

In addition to the series of resignations, Bachelet was welcomed into office by a demonstration dubbed “The March to End All Marches.” The rally, which took place a week after her inauguration, was made up of a range of civil society activists, from gay rights advocates to environmentalists. The march was branded by organizers as a “welcome” to the president and a show of support for her proposed social and constitutional reforms. However, it also underlined the public’s desire to maintain pressure on the new government, to make sure it delivers on its promises of radical change.

With a demonstration of this scale, and a flurry of resignations prior to the start of her administration, outsiders could be forgiven for thinking that Bachelet’s government is in disarray. Yet despite the hectic start, Bachelet remains serene. The first president since 1952 to serve a second term, she enjoys an unprecedented level of public support, her approval ratings remaining consistent throughout her first month in office. Her inauguration ceremony was eagerly anticipated even as resignations hit the headlines. Thousands of Chileans lined the streets of Santiago to watch her enter La Moneda.

Her inauguration ceremony was a particularly poignant moment, as Bachelet, Chile’s first female president, received the presidential sash from Senator Isabel Allende, the first female president of the Senate and daughter of president Salvador Allende, overthrown in Chile’s 1973 military coup. Both women lost their fathers to the junta, forcing them to flee Chile with their families.

As the dust settles on Bachelet’s difficult first month, she is aware that although it has been a tough, emotionally taxing few weeks, with public expectations so high, her time in office is about to get tougher.