Former president Sebastián Piñera is making a comeback. Ending his term as one of the most unpopular presidents ever, he is now among the most popular figures, according to one poll. Undoubtedly, he’s played his hand well and made gains where they seemed impossible.
It’s no coincidence. The moves former president Sebastián Piñera has been making since the day he handed over to Gabriel Boric are bearing fruit.
In its weekly survey, pollster Cadem put Piñera among the most popular figures – unthinkable less than a year ago. He seems to be back and with a clear plan: return to government palace La Moneda.
In April 2022, Mario Desbordes, who served as defense minister under Piñera and led his party, National Renewal, told reporters, to the chagrin of Piñera backers, that “I have no doubt and many of those who are close to him have no doubt … I think he looks in the mirror and feels that he is the only one who can govern Chile. I would not support him.”
This was during the Boric honeymoon period, when Piñera kept rigorous silence. When he left the presidency, he was Chile’s most unpopular president since the return to democracy, with 9% approval, according to pollster Cadem and 6% according to CEP. In the region, only Peru’s Alejandro Toledo had a lower rating.
Desbordes tried to give piñerismo a coup de grâce, but he failed.
One success, many failures
As a businessman with a criminal record, Piñera knows where to place chips; he is betting on all colors. When he negotiated the COVID-19 vaccines – an undisputed success – he demonstrated his entrepreneurial talent. Of course, the political deficit was even more evident. The social uprising dislocated him, encouraging Venezuelan immigration boomeranged and turned into an uncontrollable crisis in the north, and a truckers’ strike ended only because his administration gave in as almost all ministers were on vacation.
In his own camp, he drew attacks because he faltered on the key ideological issues of private pension fund withdrawals and a new Constitution, both of which he agreed to. If it were not for the vaccines, Piñera’s legacy would have been marked by the violent rejection of his and the center-left administrations which governed Chile for 30 years during the historical uprising in 2019, the nepotism he flaunted when taking his children on an official trip to China to get them business, and the sale of the controversial Dominga copper project, in which he was involved as businessman and politician.
Scheming to power
But Piñera is stubborn. As soon as he handed over to Boric, he summoned his former confidantes and formed some kind of petty shadow cabinet, just as he did after his first term, when he handed over to Michelle Bachelet. This crew was helped by the media, which dutifully disseminated their statements attacking the government day in and day out and gave them ample air time, despite their obvious failures. With impeccable timing, former ministers and advisers are still taking turns.
However, Piñera himself only reappeared late last year, taking advantage of a government that was weakened by the clear rejection of the constitutional draft. Piñerismo then took the reins in the negotiations for a second constitutional process, succeeding in placing several allies in key positions, like in the unelected expert committee that defines constitutional red lines.
In his party coalition, he elevated Rodrigo Delgado – who also has a shady past as former mayor of a central Santiago district – neutralizing Desbordes. However, the chef’s kiss was an invitation of his former ministers to La Moneda to advise on handling the devasting wildfires that are ravaging the country. It must have been sweet revenge, considering the criticism they received from those who are governing now.
The signs of Piñera’s political return are evident. Among Chile’s richest persons, he has the economic resources and manpower. I have no idea if he actually has plans for a third term, but he is at least paving the way for his allies to gain influence. We’ll find out more soon.
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.