Chile: Sebastián Piñera enters his second year in La Moneda

Piñera’s international agenda

In 2019, President Sebastián Piñera seems to have tightened his grip on the political agenda. During January and February, Piñera focused almost exclusively on the Venezuela issue. He made periodic remarks in the media on the sociopolitical crisis in Venezuela, condemning human right violations by the government of Nicolás Maduro.  In a reckless political gamble in February, Piñera traveled to Cúcuta in Colombia to deliver humanitarian aid for Venezuelans across the border. Once there, together with Colombia’s President Iván Duque, Piñera even took part in Venezuela Aid Live, a musical concert whose major highlight was the appearance of Juan Guaidó, acting President of Venezuela.

At home, Piñera’s anti-Maduro rhetoric and trip to Colombia took the left-of-center opposition by surprise, as only a handful of politicians raised their voice to criticize him. The reason for such a muted reaction might well be that February is a summer break for most politicians. However, their internal division and conflicting positions on the sociopolitical crisis in Venezuela possibly prevented them from launching a coordinated response to Piñera’s international agenda.

In addition to his Venezuela intervention, Piñera took advantage of South America’s right turn by pushing for the creation of Progress for South America (PROSUR), a regional initiative that seeks to replace the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the bloc created in 2008 by left-wing South American leaders but in decline since the death of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. PROSUR’s inaugural meeting was recently held in Santiago, Chile. The visit of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro captured the attention of the media and Chile’s leftist opposition. Piñera was criticized at home for being too close to right-wing populist leaders like Bolsonaro, as well as for his attempts to dismantle UNASUR.

Nevertheless, whether Piñera’s “international agenda” enhanced or weakened his popularity is an entirely different question. Piñera’s approval ratings had dropped to 38% in December, his lowest in 2018. Even though no reliable polls have yet been published in 2019, nothing indicates that Piñera’s approval has improved this year. Unemployment, probably the best indicator of Piñera’s progress in making good on his campaign promises, is still relatively high at 6.8% for the November-January trimester, topping the previous trimester and the same trimester from the previous year.

Preemptive identity control and a divided left-of-center opposition

A few days ago, La Moneda announced its intention to push for a bill to reduce the minimum age for being subject to identity checks by Carabineros, Chile’s police force and the Investigations Police (PDI) from 18 to 14. In 2016, the Michelle Bachelet administration passed the first bill allowing Carabineros and the PDI to request ID from anyone 18 years old or older, whether they were suspected of a crime or not. The left-leaning opposition has opposed Piñera’s initiative, arguing that it violates the rights of minors and would do nothing to reduce crime. Whatever the future of the bill, it helped bring some unity to a splintered political opposition. The bloc of left-of-center parties has rarely presented a united front except for its demand that the newly-appointed Minister of Culture Mauricio Rojas be fired (he resigned after 96 hours in his post), and its insistence that Interior Minister Andrés Chadwick be summoned to answer questions in Congress following the assassination in October 2018 of Camilo Catrillanca by members of police special forces.

 Such fragmentation in the left-leaning opposition may stem from their different pro and anti-establishment stances, as well as political style. However, inter-party polarization in the opposition seems to have increased over the few last months. In January, legislators from the Frente Amplio (FA, Broad Front), a political bloc mostly comprised of leftist and some far-left small parties, decided to break an pact with the rest of the opposition in which it had agreed to support the Christian Democrat (DC) candidate in elections for the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies. The election, in which every deputy has a single vote, was held on March 19th.Taking advantage of the  left opposition’s troubles, parties of the right-wing Chile Vamos, Piñera’s political coalition, backed the nomination of Deputy Jaime Bellolio (UDI), who won the first round with 73 votes, two more than the DC candidate, Deputy Iván Flores.  Nevertheless, since neither Bellolio nor Flores secured the required majority, a second round was held. Finally, after hours of intense negotiations within the opposition alliance, Flores won the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies with 81 votes, against Bellolio’s 68. 

The risk of defeat faced by the opposition parties alarmed many on the Left. Since the return of democracy in 1990, this was the first time a second vote had been necessary. Coalitions and parties had always held enough support and abided by the pacts made to secure the presidency of the lower house. This issue illustrates the widely commented splits and divisions between the opposition parties. 

Eyes on the future

Politicians and parties are already anticipating the 2021 presidential election. Piñera and Chile Vamos, whose problems appear to be far less serious than those of the opposition, are dealing with the challenge of how to manage several aspirants to La Moneda in 2022. In fact, Piñera has been the target of mild critiques from his own coalition because of his personalistic leadership style, one that does not promote the visibility of other potential presidential candidates from within the ruling alliance.[1]

On the other hand, in the left-of-center opposition no single viable candidate has emerged. They barely secured the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies where they, at least nominally, hold a majority of seats. This is just one example of the many coordination problems they have faced in the first 12 months since PIñera’s inauguration. The 2020 local elections are the first major challenge the left of center has to face. A resounding defeat may well seal the fate of the coalition and assure the right-wing Chile Vamos’s occupancy of La Moneda for another term. If Michelle Bachelet decides to make a third bid—an unlikely scenario but not one that can be easily dismissed—we would be in a completely different political scenario.


[1] In Chile, presidents are not allowed to seek consecutive reelection.

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