VALPARAÍSO – President Sebastián Piñera will deliver his State of the Union tonight at 8:00 p.m. It will be the first time for the president to deliver the annual speech since the protests started on Oct. 18. Ever since, his country and political agenda have taken an unimaginable turn.
Few presidents have faced such a damaged country while delivering a State of the Union address. Tonight at 8:00 p.m. in the Chilean Congress in Valparaíso, President Sebastián Piñera, whose approval rating has dropped in the last weeks to a mere 10 percent, must now address a government and a country that is falling from one crisis to the next. It is a critical address for several reasons.
Crisis 1: Protests
It is inevitable that the president will have to address the protests that started Oct. 18, 2019 and forever changed Chile, because if anything has severely damaged his political image, it is his handling of this social uprising. Although ultimately dismissed by Congress, the constitutional accusation against Piñera for numerous alleged human rights violations that occurred during the protests still dogs him.
Four leading human rights organizations, among them Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, and Amnesty International, reported on the alleged atrocities committed by Chilean authorities. Such reports stick to Piñera, whether he is criminally prosecuted after his term or not. Never before in Chilean history has a president sunk to a six percent approval rating. As there is a Chile before and after Oct. 18, so too there is a Piñera before and after.
Crisis 2: Pandemic
Just when the protests seemed to flare up again in early March, the global pandemic put an end to all social street movements. However, rather than capitalize on the calm to overcome the administration’s perceived shortcomings in response to the protests, the administration is perceived to have fallen short yet again. With former Health Minister Jaime Mañalich as protagonist, government policies went against all international recommendations, with a failed immunity passport-experiment, dynamic quarantines, and a collapsing public health system as tragic highlights.
Chile now has some of the highest reported numbers in both infections and in deaths per million inhabitants; and, although the situation is improving, a return to dynamic quarantine measures in the Metropolitan region is heavily debated, as once again it seems economic growth trumps public health. How will Piñera reflect on these months, and what will he say about the new post-pandemic society that Chile must build?
Crisis 3: Economy
One of the devastating side-effects of the pandemic was the economic crisis that came with it. On this day of the State of the Union, the National Institute for Statistics (INE) has published the unemployment number of the second quarter. With nearly one million Chileans out of work, the sad reality is that these numbers are just a small flavor of what is to come in the next months. The INE did not publish numbers on the informal economy, the worst hit sector in Chile.
In the lower income parts of the country, tragically the parts where the coronavirus rages the hardest, people have to choose between infection and going hungry. Despite several emergency packages from the government, supporting the most vulnerable families, the Chilean middle class, and the country’s businesses, the outlook for the coming years is pessimistic. Chile will no longer be the “oasis” Piñera said it was. The country is facing a new, tragic future. What economic pronouncements might there be tonight?
Crisis 4: Chile Vamos
The governing coalition Chile Vamos, made up of the center right Evópoli, Piñera’s National Renewal (RN), and the far right Independent Democratic Union (UDI), were already divided over the government’s handling of the protests and the lack of a strong hand in the Araucanía region. However, the approval of the pension bill in both houses of Chile’s Congress was the straw that broke the camel’s back, especially as representatives and senators from government parties voted in favor of a bill the government itself campaigned against. After the historic defeat, political leaders publicly questioned ministers and for the fifth time President Piñera shuffled his cabinet. Political scientists question his mandate after he failed to unite his coalition. Will he be able to patch things up for the tense months ahead?
Challenge 5: Referendum
If everything goes as planned, on Oct. 25 Chile will vote on a new Constitution. With his latest cabinet shuffle, President Piñera opted for several ministers who are outspoken Rechazo-supporters. Nevertheless, Chile has made clear that the voice of the people is what matters at the moment and the government must now face the huge challenge of organizing a historic plebiscite. More important, the government must respect the outcome of this referendum, and as its most likely Apruebo will win, begin to write a new Constitution.
For several governing parties, this means a goodbye to the ideology they were founded upon. Chile is facing some challenging months and Piñera will be the president, already battered and bruised, who must lead the country through that turbulent period. What might he say about the referendum tonight?
The State of the Union will be at 8:00 p.m. in the Congress in Valparaíso and can be followed on all major television and radio channels.