The Meaning of Piñera’s ‘Authoritarian’ Move

SANTIAGO – President Sebastián Piñera announced that he would summon a committee of former parliamentarians, academics and other experts to “improve” how bills are dispatched to Congress. He said this plan was developed to “avoid the admission of proposals which do not respect the Constitution.” But critics charged the measure was “technocratic,” “aggressive” and “authoritarian.”

Announcing the plan in late June, the government said “the President of the Republic […] highlighted the importance of adhering to law and to the Constitution.” His committee would ensure each new initiative “is in line with the fundamental pillars of the democratic republic and the rule of law.”

Piñera claimed recently Congress debates initiatives that “might be well-intentioned, but are unconstitutional because they do not respect the attributes granted by the Magna Carta.” As a solution, experts selected and summoned by him, will propose procedural improvements so Congress would not have to deal with unconstitutional initiatives.

The proposal puts 46 initiatives in Congress at risk because the government argues they are unconstitutional. Most were presented this year in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and include credit payment freezes, modifying the labor code, and banning utilities from cutting basic services.

“It’s a Plan That Was Born Dead”

The move generated controversy among members of the Chilean opposition and political scientists. Commentators like Cristóbal Bellolio, assistant professor of political philosophy at Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, think the move is unexpected and illogical, and highlights a common question in neoliberal democracies: Which role should state procedures play in public life?

In the end, however, the proposal was only “theoretically concerning,” Bellolio says to Chile Today. “The only experts to attend Piñera’s summoning were a handful of right-wing constitutional lawyers who told him it was a bad idea – it’s a plan that was born dead.

Piñera’s 2017 presidential campaign turned out successful in part due to his defense of the Constitution. Buoyed by the victory, Piñera spent the early stages of his presidency suppressing demands for a constitutional referendum until nationwide protests began in October 2019, reigniting calls to redraft the Magna Carta.

But Bellolio believes the universal backlash to the expert committee will impede its ability to make significant changes, even if it comes to pass. Opposition to the plan came not only from the left, but also from within Piñera’s Chile Vamos coalition, although misgivings are expressed only in private, daily La Tercera reported.

Vocal supporters, however, include Hernán Larraín Matte, head of Chile Vamos member party Evópoli. Larraín Matte said it is “fundamental to reinforce a system of control in Congress to avoid the malpractice of constitutional populism.” Right now, it would be important lawmakers “approve all the initiatives” of the Covid-19 emergency plan while the president’s plan would be unproblematic as long as it does not impact initiatives already in Congress.

Opposition figures like Senate leader Adriana Muñoz of the Party for Democracy (PPD) said the move was “quite aggressive” and constituted “a real interference in regulation” which “gravely impacts” the power of the state. Socialist Party leader Álvaro Elizalde said implementing the committee would “do away with the current institutional framework,” while left-wing Frente Amplio coalition and the Communist Party deemed the move “authoritarian.”

Despite its weakness, Bellolio also suggested the proposal is revealing broader changes in the political landscape and the role of the state and Congress.

In Puente Alto, a Humanitarian Disaster Is Waiting to Happen

Populism versus Technocracy

Bellolio said last year’s protests were a catalyst that created a “populist moment” in many countries during which populations exacted “democratic revenge” against “elite” state legislators.

During the pandemic, however, scientific and medical experts became more visible in the political discourse. Bellolio said that led to a shift toward technocracy, which “might be connected” to Piñera’s intention to “offload congressional responsibilities to a committee of undemocratically elected experts.” 

For the academic, “liberal democracies have the tendency of taking the decision-making power from the people and giving it to expert committees, constitutional courts and international bodies,” which is partly why populists on the left and right “tend to complain that liberal democracy is becoming less and less democratic.” This supposed shift to an increasingly less democratic state apparatus is reflected in the rejection of the president’s plan.

Populism and technocracy are often “placed in opposition,” Bellolio said. Apparently, “they’re sworn enemies, but they’re similar because they both bypass political mediation such as congressional debate, parliamentary procedures and more. Populists bypass conventional modes of political participation because if the people know what’s best, they don’t need a parliament.” 

Meanwhile, “technocrats bypass conventional political participation because if you believe that experts should be trusted, you’ll go straight to them and don’t allow for an idea to be debated in Congress.” 

Bellolio said the president could be using experts to “provide a framework that may be able to justify the government’s opposition to very popular projects.” While increasing technocracy does not end the populist moment, Bellolio said it poses new questions about the role of state institutions.

Piñera’s Forced About-Face

Constitutional Referendum

These proposed changes can be situated within the context of the constitutional referendum to take place later this year, which was postponed from April due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Bellolio said a new Constitution offers the chance to rebuild the country’s “power architecture.”

“The pandemic has proven that the state doesn’t have the congressional power we thought it did, showing how much we need a new Constitution, and a new architecture of power.” Yet the president’s attempt to bypass institutional procedures make him look “acting as though there isn’t a constitutional assembly taking place soon, it doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Hence, this is a “strange” move, less about “respecting the Constitution” and more about trying to give the president a “justification” to deny popular initiatives his party is not in favor of.

But the academic predicts that the new Constitution will “highlight the state’s power more than it currently does, maybe including some changes like a health system resembling the [British] NHS, reallocating natural resources,” and more initiatives that have been amplified by the pandemic.

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