President Sebastián Piñera’s approval ratings dropped from 44% in April 2018 to 27% in May 2019, whereas those who hold a negative opinion toward his administration grew from 38% to 63% in the same period (source: MORI-CERC). After 15 months in office, the Piñera administration has nothing substantial to show for it yet. The economy still has not taken off, the president made a judgment error by having a “family trip” as part of a state visit to China in April, and the right-wing Chile Vamos ruling coalition has begun to see some infighting over the latest cabinet reshuffle.
Piñera’s campaign slogan was “tiempos mejores” (better times), which summarizes what the electorate expects from him: more and better jobs. However, better times have yet to come, and people seem to have grown tired of waiting. Economic perceptions are not optimistic. Only 19% of Chileans now believe the national economy will improve in the next 12 months, compared to 26% in October 2018 (source: CEP). As a matter of fact, Felipe Larraín, Finance Minister, has repeatedly found himself downgrading the economic growth expectations in the last months while promising that the economy will eventually turn around. Finally, unemployment is still close to 7%, and unemployment still seems higher under Piñera’s first year in office than during Michellet Bachelet’s last year in the presidential palace, La Moneda.
Unemployment (March 2017 – April 2019)
However, the shape of the economy is not the only reason for the Piñera government’s waning popularity. In late April, as part of a state visit to China, Piñera brought with him his two adult sons, Sebastián and Cristóbal. Both of them even sat in a business meeting with Chinese investors and entrepreneurs of the tech sector. Piñera and his closest ministers adamantly argued that this action did not break any legal rule and that it did not cost taxpayers any extra money. The opposition took this issue to the Comptroller General, whose ruling backed the president’s version. Nevertheless, the truth is that the Piñera brothers had privileged access to a state visit just for being related to the president. Nepotism is not new in the Piñera administration, though. Last year, he designated his brother as ambassador in Argentina and the young daughter of a friend of his (with no government experience) as a commercial attaché in the New York office with an annual salary of US$ 180,000. The president only backed down from the appointments after receiving intense backlash from the opposition. This time, critiques did not only come from the opposition but also from members of his own coalition. Deputy Ximena Ossandón (RN) and Senator Andrés Allamand (RN) labeled the president’s actions as a mistake for which Piñera should apologize in order to move on. Rather, La Moneda has been haunted by this issue for over a month, hampering the president’s ability to control the agenda.
Moreover, Chile Vamos has faced some internal troubles lately. In March 2019, Piñera’s personalistic leadership style was singled out as preventing potential candidates of his coalition from getting more media attention. Then, the “family trip” to China as part of the state visit took over the agenda. Now, it is the distribution of portfolios after the latest cabinet shake-up. Leaders of UDI, one of the parties of the ruling alliance, protested because the changes unsettled the “equilibrium of forces” within the cabinet, as there are now fewer UDI ministers. RN, the other major party in Chile Vamos, asked Sebastián Piñera not to give in to the UDI’s pressures and complaints since they were unjustified. Interestingly, the latest internal disputes attracted more attention than the cabinet reshuffle itself, which, as political scientist Patricio Navia states, was not substantial enough to weather the critiques towards the Piñera administration.
The silver lining is that the opposition, although it has lately shown signs of unity by blocking the president’s major bills in Congress (e.g., tax and pension reforms), has approval ratings as bad as the Piñera administration: 58% of Chileans have a negative view of opposition parties, and only 22% approve of their performance (source: MORI-CERC). Facing a weak opposition obviously has its advantages. The president may make some mistakes and get away with them. Whether those mistakes will cost him in the future is yet unknown. But more importantly, after 15 months in office, it is still not clear what grand legacy the Piñera administration wants to offer.