Piñera Marks Two Years in Office as Crisis Surges

SANTIAGO – While the protests in Chile show no signs of letting up almost five months after they started, the country’s president, marks this week two years in office. With historic low approval ratings, a deepening institutional crisis, and increasing calls that he resign, the next two years promise to be even more challenging. What is in store for him during the second half of his term?

Tiempos Mejores, or “Better Times,” was the slogan that helped businessman Sebastián Piñera win a second term as president of Chile. The billionaire promised economic growth, more jobs, and a Chile Chileans would be proud of.

How different does Chile look exactly two years later: the protests that started on Oct. 18 have changed his country completely and have forced his administration to react and retreat, rather than advance with any vision. Accusations of human rights violations during the protests have severely tarnished his administration; and his primary focus on combating violence instead of announcing profound reforms have only further sunk his approval ratings. They have now reached historic lows.

Piñera became the first president since Carlos Ibáñez del Campo in 1956 to get constitutionally accused (although Congress voted against it) and a chant comparing him with dictator Augusto Pinochet has become a permanent part of the ongoing nationwide manifestations. With even more moderate opposition leaders calling for him to resign, the two-year anniversary of Piñera’s second term is anything but a happy celebration. But what do the next two years have in store for the embattled president?

Lots of Plebiscites and Elections

With the April referendum as a start, the second half of Piñera’s term will be marked by elections and plebiscites. On the Apr. 26, Chile will vote on a new Constitution. Chileans get to decide if they want a new Constitution, and, if yes, if an assembly made up of elected citizens or a mixed assembly (with 50 percent politicians, 50 percent citizens) can write this Constitution. If the Apruebo (“Approve”) wins this April referendum, the Chileans choose in October of this year which citizens will take part in the assembly, while they also vote in the regional and municipal elections. In 2021, presidential elections take place and in the last months of Piñera’s term, when the assembly has written a new Constitution, Chileans may vote if they approve this new Constitution.

Responding to Protests and Police Violence

Ahead of the upcoming elections and plebiscites are the campaigns from both the Apruebo and Rechazo (“Reject”) movements. Stakes are high, tensions grow and so does the violence. President Piñera must decide if he will allow police violence and oppression during the protests to continue. While new footage of police beatings, severely injured protesters, and even killings surge on nearly a daily basis, police officers continue to get protection from the government—despite recommendations from human rights organizations to reform the institution.

At the same time, the Rechazo movement, supported by Chile’s right wing, seems to get police protection. The danger is an increasing polarization in Chilean society, and the country needs a unifying president, now more than ever.

Political Crisis

While Piñera is constantly attacked by the opposition for lack of leadership during the protests, the president has another crisis to handle. In his own political bloc, Chile Vamos, that until recently seemed solid as a rock, the more center-right Renovación Nacional (RN), led by Mario Desbordes, is on a rampage with Jaqueline van Rysselberghe, president of the bloc’s far-right Independent Democratic Union (UDI). While RN seeks agreements with the Chilean opposition in order to seek some form of unification in Chile’s political landscape, the UDI demands an even stronger approach to the violence surrounding the protests.

Meanwhile, former presidential candidate José Antonio Kast and his extreme right-wing movement, Acción Republicana, tries to profit from Piñera’s low approval ratings by presenting Kast as a hardliner, attracting more conservative voters to his party. To avoid a governmental crisis, Piñera must unify all sectors in the Chile Vamos bloc, while Kast circles like a hungry condor over his alliance.

Slow Economic Growth

The commercial war between China and the United States ahead of the protests already forced the government to lower its growth expectations. The protests made those expectations drop even more, as stores were forced to close, tourism dropped, and investors fled the country. The outbreak of the coronavirus, with 22 cases and counting in Chile, will have another devastating impact on the Chilean economy. Its number one trading partner China is on lockdown, barring nearly all transport in and out of the country, while stock markets shiver and shrink. The Chilean peso is at an all time low and economic growth, the biggest promise that got businessman Piñera elected, seems a fata morgana. Implementing measures to battle the increasing loss of jobs and recuperating confidence from foreign investors will be a headache for Piñera, especially with the protests rallying on.

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