A day to forget for President Piñera

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, August 6, 2011


The same day that a public opinion poll gave President Piñera the lowest approval since the restoration of democracy in 1990, the government’s decision to prevent a student march provoked one of the most violent confrontations between civilians and police officers since the Pinochet dictatorship ended. As he is the first rightwing President since Pinochet, Piñera has made a special effort to distance his government from the legacy of human rights violations that characterized the dictatorship. Unfortunately for him, Piñera’s anti-street protest policy is now being compared in the international news to the brutal practices of the Pinochet dictatorship.


An opponent of Pinochet himself, Piñera represents a coalition comprised of many former officials of the Pinochet dictatorship. He took office in March of 2010, after a 20-year, 5-government period under the centre-left Concertación coalition. Chile’s impressive economic development and poverty reduction under the Concertación led many to believe that the centre-left coalition was unbeatable. However, Piñera somewhat surprisingly won the presidency with a message of continuity in the economic policies and change in the leadership. Piñera offered moderate change and promised that development would be better distributed under the pro-growth and opportunity promotion policies that he would implement as President.


A few days before Piñera’s inauguration, Chile was hit by a strong earthquake. The sense of urgency to bring about the reconstruction of the country gave Piñera an opportunity to put to work his message that efficiency and good management would produce a much better government. He appointed a cabinet comprised mostly of businessmen with vast experience in the public sector but little knowledge of the public sector. In October of 2010, the successful rescue of 33 trapped miners was widely celebrated as the example of the message of good management or, as the government called it, the new way of governing. President Piñera’s approval was at 60%.


However, a number of political mistakes, corruption scandals and sloppy government decisions conspired to help Piñera lose control of the public agenda in the following months. Presidential approval began to slip and Piñera lost his cool. The promise of efficiency gave way to an extremely slow reconstruction process after the earthquake. Public opinion began to recognize the same practices of political patronage that they had grown tired of under the Concertación. Moreover, because his government was full of technocrats, the Piñera administration made political mistakes that the more politically experience Concertación would have never made.


The student protests that began in May of 2011 are the result of those infantile political mistakes. In fact, the Piñera administration had made significant progress in pushing forward an educational reform agenda that had advanced at a snail pace under the previous government. After her administration was shaken by a student protest in 2006-the so-called Penguin Revolution, after the colour of the uniforms of public students-President Bachelet had struggled to advance some of the policy recommendations made by a presidential committee she appointed to appease the reforms. In his first year in office, President Piñera moved more quickly in negotiating with his own coalition and the centre-left Concertación coalition to pass legislation that would bring about better quality education for low income children and expand educational opportunities in university and tertiary education. However, the perception that the Piñera administration was more interested in protecting private educational providers than the children who attend voucher schools and private higher education institutions triggered a series of protests in early May.


The student movement eventually grew much stronger as President Piñera’s approval continued to slip and as the centre-left Concertación opposition adopted more radical positions-contrary to the moderate stands it had when it was in power. The bi-weekly marches organized by students during thw winter became the dominant item in the agenda. Eventually, President Piñera had to shuffle his cabinet in mid-July, appointing a new Minister of Education. Two weeks later, the Minister announced a 21-point reform package and invited all interested parties to sit at the negotiating table. The students responded renewing a call for a new protest of Thursday. The government announced that the time for marches had ended and the time for negotiations had begun. Thus, the march was not authorized to use the most important and symbolic street in Santiago. Students tried to march anyway and the police used tear gases and anti-riot equipment to prevent them from marching.


In the next few weeks, students will attempt to extract more concessions from the weakened Piñera government. Though it is unlikely they will succeed, it does seem that the first rightwing administration in Chile is finding out that governing a country is much more difficult and complicated than successfully running a business.