OPINION POLITICS

Piñera Is Sleeping with the Enemy

President Sebastián Piñera has handed the initiative to the parties of his Chile Vamos coalition. Specifically, it went to some leaders who joined his cabinet so they were out of the ring where they confronted each other publicly and daily. But the move is risky, considering the pandemic and upcoming events.

To calm the waters in the ruling party, National Renewal (RN), Piñera reshuffled the cabinet a few weeks ago. He put Andrés Allamand at the helm of the Foreign Ministry and appointed former party leader Mario Desbordes defense minister. But far from fulfilling the purpose, the president has had to surrender to the loquacity and devotion of both to talk to the press. Both the former senator and the former parliamentarian represent the two extremes of Renovación Nacional, as the party has morphed into something like the Christian Democrats of the early 1990s: a conglomerate that lives the tension stemming from either approaching or differentiating itself from the center and the extreme right.

In reality the two ministers broke with the unwritten rule all their predecessors accepted, namely, to not frame their communication with the agenda of their ministerial portfolios. They should have refrained from contingent political opinionating. But both remained the spokespersons for their respective wings and internal groups. Allamand and Desbordes clarifying their positions regarding the plebiscite on a new Constitution, planned for Oct. 25; Allamand and Desbordes referring to the constitutional process; Allamand and Desbordes giving weekend interviews to the main newspapers, magazines and news sites.

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Cornered

Piñera, on the other hand, has toned down his leadership role compared to what we were used to see from Oct. 18 after the social outburst, and especially after the start of the pandemic. The president is trying to position himself on “positive” issues, like that kind of TED Talk he gave announcing Chile would launch Latin America’s first 5G tender, or announcing the permission for children and adolescents in quarantine zones to go outside. Politics was left to Chile Vamos.

Still, not even his attempt to diffuse the emerging tension between the ministers advocating for the “Apruebo” (approve) or “Rechazo” (reject) options regarding a new Constitution created good results. Allamand said in an interview that neither the president, nor Interior Minister Víctor Pérez nor spokesperson Jaime Bellolio could ask him not to express something “everybody knew.” Curiously, Bellolio also belongs to the “liberal wing” of coalition member Independent Democratic Union (UDI) and was for Apruebo – until he assumed his cabinet post.

With these developments, the president could not bolster a neutral government position. He had no choice but to point out that his cabinet members could not participate in official campaign events but could express their preferences. In practice, something completely impossible to control.

Tricky Waters

What’s the background? An assumption that “Rechazo” will lose in October. So far, all polls – including one from controversial firm Cadem – do not predict more than 20% support for this option. Government palace La Moneda is certainly calculating. Imagining that the plebiscite night could add another defeat to the one brought about by the social outbreak and the recent approval of the 10% pension fund withdrawal, the government assumes it is better to place different bets to absorb the blow.

It is preferable that Desbordes, chief of staff Cristián Monckeberg, Finance Minister Ignacio Briones and other “Apruebo” proponents get into the spotlight right now, so the government’s defeat won’t appear total. The move is reasonable. Piñera would have an extremely difficult year and a half ahead after a potential triumph for those who want to abolish the Pinochet Constitution, even though it was substantially modified, including during the Ricardo Lagos government.

I believe that La Moneda began preparations for the strategy after a possible defeat this week. The ministers with their own agenda, especially Desbordes, Allamand, and Pérez, can give the president a lot of headaches and force him to publicly explain his and the government’s differences with their positions. But Piñera had to accept this risk to avoid the collapse of the coalition.

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Neverending Woes

However, the ghosts of a potential suspension of the plebiscite have once again clouded the political landscape. Although Congress approved an executive initiative to grant special powers to electoral regulator SERVEL to increase ballot box locations and hours, and facilitate the vote of Covid-19 patients, among others, the traceability variable in the quarantined districts is much lower than the expected minimum. This could turn October 25 into a focal point of the outbreak and would mark the country’s political history.

Little by little, doubts have arisen these days. The government has been cautious, with Pérez saying, “we are not going to impose anything, unless it is agreed.”

But since we became a distrustful and suspicious country since the outburst that started on October 18, when the country “woke up” according to analysts, it has not escaped attention that the “step-by-step” process of lifting quarantines has allowed two million people to circulate freely these weeks. Yet, statistics and epidemiology experts have warned that the curve for recurring outbreaks in the Metropolitan Region resembles that of Germany, which is dealing with rising cases again.

This implies that we could see – hopefully the experts are wrong – a new outbreak just around the end of October, that is, around the 18th and 25th. Well, a simple coincidence.

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