With his presidency in shambles, Sebastián Piñera reached for the last straw. During his last address to the nation in Congress, he announced the fast-tracking of the same-sex marriage law. This act of desperation has dismantled the right-wing he set out to consolidate.
President Sebastián Piñera has become an inconsequential character. Far from becoming “the best president in history,” as his campaign team said in 2017, the president was preparing to face the last year of his government with neither mercy nor glory. His presidency has the bitter taste of below 20% public support and the consolidated perception that he’s unable to adequately manage the pandemic and the social crisis that started in October 2019. So he went all-in and fast-tracked the same-sex marriage law.
Piñera has always been obsessed with leaving a legacy which would ensure his place in history. He alluded to it in interviews, speeches, and during his two presidential campaigns. Early in his first term, the rescue of the 33 miners trapped in a mine in the Atacama desert was not only a technical and human episode, it also gave him a sense of achievement. But things started totally differently in his second term.
His campaign slogan Better Times became a cruel caricature. He promised to reduce crime, restore peace to La Araucanía Region, control immigration, boost growth, and whatever else the population asked for back then. Alluding to his predecessor, Michelle Bachelet, he also promised to end nepotism and introduce new faces to crack a sclerotic, elitist government class.
But now Chile is suffering out-of-control crime, including drug trafficking, rural violence has literally set La Araucanía on fire, and economic indicators are bad – of course largely due to the pandemic. Illegal immigration continues in the north, despite the government’s savage Guantanamo-style mass deportation media shows.
Well, and what to say about the “compadrazgo,” the tight-knit government club? Piñera tried to appoint his brother ambassador, took his children on official trips to help their business along; his cousin, Andrés Chadwick, was Interior Minister, and the list of his friends’ children in key government positions is long.
The Burial of Tradition
On top of the unfulfilled promises, Piñera became a gravedigger of the traditional politics that were dominant for the last 30 years. He will be remembered for the social outbreak of October 2019. It was no coincidence that the rebellion against rigged institutions and stark inequality also confronted a billionaire president. In a certain way, he represented all things bad.
Piñera became the antithesis of Bachelet. She constructed a maternal, affectionate image, while he symbolized the calculating businessman. And this image is the least popular during a crisis of proportions. That is why criticism was relentless and his approval fell, even as Chile became a global vaccination star.
Of course, supply and logistics worked fine, certainly also because of Piñera’s business style. But infections and deaths increased brutally because the entire health strategy rested on the vaccine. In addition, he was so stingy with financial aid that even the government coalition pushed for more. The damage was irreversible.
Dismantling the Right
But if there is one thing Piñera will be remembered for, it is the death blow to Chile’s traditional right. During his government, a pillar of the economic model, the private pension system created by his brother in the 1980s, collapsed, as did many authoritarian enclaves created during the dictatorship such as the Constitution and the Constitutional Court. But the same-sex marriage law was the coup de grace. It broke the Chile Vamos coalition.
Two days before the president’s annual address, government official Juan José Ossa talked about the president’s legacy in conservative newspaper El Mercurio. According to him, Piñera would be remembered for having handled the social uprising and the pandemic. But everything fell apart when the president announced the fast-tracking of the law, dividing the right. Marriage is a dogma for the reactionary right, which even resisted legalizing divorce until the late 1990s.
He seems to endorse the marriage project as a desperate attempt to regain some of his popularity, even more so, considering he consistently opposed equal rights. Several lawmakers of his party warned they were “freezing” their relationship with the government. The decision also impacted the primary campaigns of the four right-wing candidates that want to become president.
And of course, there is a paradox that Piñera will be remembered for this act. Piñera’s great legacy is to have dismantled the traditional right. Who was going to predict that three years ago?
Germán Silva Cuadra is an expert in corporate communications and a regular commentator on Chilean politics. His latest book is ‘No te reconozco Chile. Cómo entender al país que noqueó a la elite.’ Germán tweets under @gsilvacuadra.