President Sebastián Piñera has presented seven priorities for the rest of his government. As an apparent secondary but really central concern, he mentioned his legacy. He’s stumbling, however, even while choosing a successor.
Shortly before leaving government, Barack Obama was asked what he believed was his legacy. He responded with humor and intelligence “that you ask me in about 10 or 20 more years.” The anecdote contrasts with President Sebastian Piñera’s obsession although his tenure continues for more than a year.
Recently, the president announced the seven priorities for this last stretch. On the occasion, he asked his ministers to “highlight the government’s achievements” in an election year and, of course, that they courageously defend the “legacy.” But he didn’t indicate which “legacy” he meant.
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The priorities are vaccinating 15 million people, strengthening social security, recovering jobs, strengthening public security, reinforcing the health system with a “universal health” plan, implementing pension reform, and contributing to the constitutional process.
Unlike during similar announcements, the president didn’t provide employment figures. At least he seems to have learned that tricky promises should be avoided in these times of pandemic and a possible resurgence of the social uprising. Prudence is a value.
Piñera ran for a second mandate in 2017 to become the “best president in history,” he confessed. Initially, he wanted continuity as legacy. Before handing power back to Michelle Bachelet, he had designed a powerful plan in 2014 under which he brought his government confidantes – including his main ministers – to his private office. They worked full-time to prepare his return.
It was Piñera’s heyday. He had members of the UDI and RN political parties at his service. That was also the birth of Piñerismo. And prematurely, shortly after assuming his second mandate, he began looking for a successor, or rather standard-bearer, of his movement. At some point his wife, Cecilia Morel, was even considered to take over. But then the social outbreak of October 2019 shattered everything.
Piñera understands well, however, that he needs to install a close collaborator in government palace La Moneda to save a piece of his dream. While governing coalition Chile Vamos collapsed because ministers are distancing themselves from the government as part of planned presidential runs, the president quietly put together a new plan: cultivate former Development Minister Sebastián Sichel as successor.
But Sichel turned out unreliable. He ran as lawmaker for the old left-wing Concertación coalition twice, had consultancy contracts with the Bachelet government, fought with influential leaders like Christian Democrat Claudio Orrego and Bachelet confidante Andrés Velasco. Sichel created his own movement and tried to win the support of the president’s RN, which has already chosen former Defense Minister Mario Desbordes as presidential candidate.
Sichel appears following a biographical communication strategy, emphasizing a history of hard work and a middle-class background. He wants to be seen as far away as possible from the elite, expensive schools, and exclusive neighborhoods. A self-made man. Sichel knows communications and lobbying strategy since he directed that area at lobby firm Burson-Marsteller.
And just as doubts about Sichel arose at La Moneda, the mayor of Santiago’s flush Providencia district punched Piñerismo in the gut, too. Evelyn Matthei threw the first darts against the chosen one. Although a bona fide right-winger – her father Fernando was Pinochet’s defense minister – Matthei accused Sichel of being the candidate “of businesspeople, of [influential right-wing think tank] Libertad y Desarrollo, and politicians who do not want to lose power.”
In response, La Moneda activated Plan B – former Finance Minister Ignacio Briones. When he left office, he was afforded the farewell spectacle of descending the government palace’s stairs together with his family.
This way Piñera gave Briones a powerful boost while still disposing of him. An exit in glory and majesty, with the air of a head of state.
Piñerismo’s two candidates differ greatly, even though they’re associated with the center-right. However, although Briones could qualify as an elite representative, he has scant high-level political experience. He also went to a prestigious school, is the son of upper-class professionals, studied at the conservative Universidad Católica, and underwent postgraduate studies in Paris.
Although he performed relatively well during the social uprising and the pandemic and always seeks dialogue, he has difficulty winning support from Chile Vamos hardliners.
But right now, Sichel has the hardest time. He has complained bitterly about the right’s aggressiveness against him and has failed to win institutional support from any party.
Piñera will soon have to decide which horse to back to secure the continuity of his “legacy.”
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.