Not long after taking office, Chile’s President Gabriel Boric had to grapple with a series of setbacks. But instead of letting them wear him down, he seems to have taken them as opportunities. This is a more determined Boric.
President Gabriel Boric must be resilient. He endured the crushing defeat of the constitutional proposal in September, the stupid errors of his close circle, a ferocious and destructive opposition, and a hostile traditional press.
But in recent weeks, Boric has changed, surely as part of a political and communicational strategy. He started the pension reform, which was a blow to the opposition and allows him to fulfill a campaign promise. He also shows pragmatism with the business sector and the TPP11 free trade agreement, and a firmer stance on public security, even though that ruffled some feathers with his coalition partners.
In addition, the visit to La Araucanía region – where rural violence is fueled by organized crime and century-old social tension – marked a turning point for Boric. He listened with the same emotional intelligence to Mapuche leaders as he did to victims of violence, and proposed a program with concrete actions. He even acknowledged that former Interior Minister Izkia Siches made a mistake when she was visiting the region 48 hours after taking office and was greeted with gunshots.
Taking the Initiative
Apart from domestic issues, Boric sharpened his international profile. During recent events like the APEC summit, he rubbed shoulders with Xi Jinping – who invited him to China – and Canada’s Justin Trudeau and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern.
His bid for pension reform turned out successful. In the first place, it became clear that it’s a key issue for the public, although not for the media. Pension reform was a key driver during the social upheaval of 2019. Citizens generally agree that the misery pensions paid out by the private AFP system need to go. Over half of the country’s 2.3 million retirees receive state support because the AFP system doesn’t work for them. While the publicly financed minimum pension helped offset the most miserable ones, the problem persists.
With the reform, the government regained control of the political and communication agendas. With a well-thought-out move, it put all its chips on a project that failed in the governments of Michelle Bachelet and Sebastián Piñera, and which our political class has refused to confront.
In addition to the communicational impact of the announcement, the government defined the frontlines of the ideological battle. It sparked debates about the additional 6 percent pension contributions that are planned to come from employers for salaries above CLP$1.5 million (US$1,650), the role of the state and the pension fund managers, which Boric said would be done away with, but which might effectively rebrand. The opposition then had to come out and defend the rather unpopular current system.
Pragmatism Trumps Romanticism
Boric seems to mature and replace romanticism with pragmatism. Unlike most other politicians, who view acknowledging a mistake as a sign of weakness, Boric is not afraid to admit he was wrong.
Of course, his original program is dead and of course the exit plebiscite was a blow, but I think that this recent turn opens a huge opportunity, which must be accompanied by a narrative that accounts for this new stage.
Boric seems to have understood that to face the second stage of his government, he had to make a turn. The communications strategy behind it is evident, because the new Boric, version 2.0, has already moved on from the plebiscite defeat and is very visible.
It only remains to be seen if citizens will grasp this turn, if it is sustainable, and most importantly, if his coalition is also maturing to face the remaining three years and four months, adapting the original program to the new reality.
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.