Just two months ago, President Sebastián Piñera made his latest effort to reconnect with the citizenry. He was key in the successful vaccine roll-out and hoped to boost his image. But his failure in all other aspects is haunting his presidency.
As the government started the logistically and commercially successful vaccination campaign, a Piñera-style communication strategy followed. The president unfolded a story as predictable as it was wrong.
He spoke of finally seeing the “light at the end of the tunnel” and said Chile would be a vaccination world leader. And of course, a population that was exhausted after 18 months of abnormal conditions – which started in October 2019 – needed hope. The government not only delivered hope, but also relaxed pandemic measures by enabling vacation permits, which 4.7 million citizens used. Cinemas, bars, and gyms reopened and the curfew was softened.
The government also refused to close Santiago’s airport, even though it knew the British strain had already arrived. Students were mandated to return to classrooms. “Normality” returned to the country.
Which New Normality?
But within weeks, infections soared in holiday destinations – Valparaíso, La Araucanía, Coquimbo – and the virus returned to Metropolitan region, where over a third of the country’s population lives. Classes were suspended again, quarantine reimposed on 90% of residents, and millions relived the nightmares of unemployment and income reductions. Fear was back.
Part of the truth is that Piñera is obsessed with being loved and admired by the public. I am convinced that this obsession drove his decision to run a second time for president. With the successful vaccination campaign, he perhaps sought to recreate that moment when he reached 60% approval early during his first mandate on the back of the rescue of the 33 trapped miners.
But far from rising, approval declined this time. The gulf between businessman Piñera – who oversaw deals with several vaccine producers – and political Piñera became gigantic.
The gulf was biggest and weakened Piñera most just as the second Covid-19 wave arrived. The vaccination effect dissipated, the public grew restless due to the lack of help, and of course, popular pandemic fatigue set in as infections exceeded the worst numbers from June last year and victims were younger. The promise of light at the end of the tunnel appeared ironic.
Late in the second wave, the government announced a US$6 billion economic relief package, which was not just insufficient, but criticized by opposition and ruling coalition members alike. The package during the first lockdown involved US$12 billion.
Ruling coalition Chile Vamos quickly realized that popular discontent was spreading fast. In response, many members of the president’s National Renewal party joined calls for a third pension fund withdrawal. The initiative irritated government palace La Moneda, initiating an aggressive strategy to counter proponents in the coalition.
One desperate part of the strategy was to increase one-time cash payments in the package, which however failed to convince right-wing lawmakers. Nor did the government consider the alternatives presented by the two main right-wing presidential candidates, Joaquín Lavín and Mario Desbordes. They proposed the withdrawal of unemployment funds, which are also privatized in Chile.
The government was running out of alternatives and opted for the easiest and most unpopular way out: resorting to the Constitutional Court to block the project. In other words, La Moneda lost the capacity to respond and chose an option that will damage right-wing candidates in the elections on May 15 and 16.
In the event, Piñera rekindled the public outrage that drove the social outbreak of October 2019. On the same day of the announcement, cacerolazos (public pot banging) took place all over the country and barricades and protests followed, despite the quarantine and curfew.
🗣 As the government presented a requirement to stop the bill, which is due to be voted on in the Senate on Thursday, barricades and cacerolazos imminently took over the streets. #Cacerolazo #TerceRetiro10ciento (Video via @hernan_sr on Twitter) pic.twitter.com/fc6xzmo63c
— Chile Today News (@ChileTodayNews) April 21, 2021
Right Doesn’t Mean Right
Although Piñera is correct that the withdrawal is unconstitutional, the fact of having accepted the first two withdrawals shows that the problem goes beyond legal considerations. It is a necessity, given that many people have little or no access to state benefits. Withdrawing their funds is the only option to navigate the complex moment. And just as businessman Piñera appeared with the supply of vaccines, political Piñera once again showcased deficient skills and low empathy.
Outrage grew even more amid news that the Piñera family became US$300 million richer in a pandemic year, according to Forbes.
I believe that Piñera’s approval will collapse from the already low 14% currently. The ruling coalition could fracture even more – I do not rule out that National Renewal leaves the bloc – and it will surely see a significant setback in next month’s elections. What is worse, if the government refrains from going to the Constitutional Court at the last minute, the political cost for Independent Democratic Union and Evópoli, the government’s key allies which oppose the withdrawal, will be tremendous.
With only 11 months remaining in government, the outlook for Piñera and Chile Vamos looks very complex. An extremely weak government under fire from all sides retains only capacity to try to manage outrage and discontent. Undoubtedly, the bad decisions during these first months of the year are marking the unofficial end of the government of Sebastián Piñera.
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.