Sebastián Piñera Echeñique ran for a second term with a great objective, according to himself and his circle: to lead the “best government in history.” This ambition represented in a single phrase his personality, style, history, self-image, and of course, it hid desires, which, although he never expressed, emerged after the end of his first term. Piñera tried in every way possible to make himself a darling of the people but is now staring defeat in the eye.
The president’s objective of becoming popular ran into problems. His coldness, lack of emotional connection with people, and low empathy – he can’t look at people he greets, for example – prevented him from overcoming a natural barrier, based on a perception of the successful and calculating businessman. And if Piñera was seen as a Scrooge McDuck before, his second mandate only sharpened that image.
Shortly before the social outbreak of October 18, the president was known to pay less than a dollar in tax for a luxurious property on the shore of one of the most beautiful and expensive lakes in the country. He also took his children on the presidential plane to a state visit to China to help their business. Even more so, he never took up suggestions to donate his presidential salary, as Donald Trump did in the US.
The President’s Dream
But undoubtedly his dream, aspiration, and future longing were easier to deduce. The same day his first government ended, Piñera installed his own “La Moneda” (government palace) in one of the high rises he owns. He took his most trusted former ministers, formed programmatic teams in different areas, and began acting in parallel with then-president Michelle Bachelet, while preparing his return.
From time to time the team delivered proposals, pushed topics onto the public agenda, and harshly criticized the socialist government. What’s more, once he was elected – with a massive 54% in the second round – Piñera put this team in key positions in his cabinet. Gonzalo Blumel, Andrés Chadwick (both former interior ministers) and Cecilia Pérez (former spokesperson) knew each other by heart; they’ve been working together for eight long years. But beyond trying to project right-wing ideas, the president sought to build a legacy: “Piñerismo,” a very Latin American phenomenon building large political projects around one figure, similar to Peronismo or kichnerismo in Argentina.
Until October 17 last year, that goal seemed not so far from reality. The government acted with total autonomy from parties, even integrating independents in the cabinet or in high public positions. What’s more, names to continue that government project were flying around, including that of Piñera’s wife, Cecilia Morel. Piñera also impacted the ruling coalition – Chile Vamos – without counterweight. Those were times when the government still had public support, the economy was humming along, and the opposition was non-existent.
Too Good to be True
But after the October crisis, things started to change radically and destroy the fata morganas. Parties demanded more participation, to “tighten” the fist in the face of violence and avoid calling into question the Constitution drafted and voted during the Pinochet dictatorship. But the president failed to respond to party expectations and the differences became more pronounced. “Piñerismo” vs. Chile Vamos.
From the start of the pandemic things turned extreme, and fine and coarse tuning got lost. Conflicts became public. First UDI party against Evópoli, then the president’s RN party against UDI, and finally the quarrels bled into the coalition. The coalition became divided into “pragmatists” and “dogmatists,” in “hard” and “less hard,” in “approve” of and “reject” a new Constitution, the latter being the majority. And in the break-up scenario, declining poll numbers, and defeat in Congress, Piñera changed the cabinet, bringing in four parliamentarians, going down the hard line, and aligning with the “reject” campaign. But mainly he wanted to calm the waters in Chile Vamos and start living with the “enemy” inside.
New Foreign Minister Andrés Allamand and new Defense Minister Mario Desbordes, both influential RN members, will not be able to continue their row in the media limelight. They will try to shake hands and calm their factions in the upcoming internal party elections. UDI already knows that it won the battle and will dominate the government after the most recent cabinet change, although a week earlier it had expressed “disaffection” with La Moneda.
And Evópoli will have to bear the humiliation suffered with the replacement of Gonzalo Blumel, despite having been the only party that showed total government loyalty in the vote on the 10% pension withdrawal bill, both in the Lower House and the Senate. Members know that a small party cannot aspire to more and that straying from the hard line would impose too high a cost.
Under this new cabinet, this will no longer be Piñera’s government, but that of the parties of Chile Vamos. Sure, he had no choice. However, the last of the president’s dreams also dissolves completely. This is the definitive death of “Piñerismo.”
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.