Why are Chileans so pessimistic?

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, August 23, 2016


Though the country is fairing far better than many neighbours in the downward cycle of the regional economy, Chileans seem especially pessimistic about their country’s future outlook. The economic slowdown, growing unemployment and the widespread perception that most politicians are involved in shady campaign finance schemes (if not open corruption) have turned Chileans into champions of pessimism in the region.


President Michelle Bachelet has a lower approval rating than all other South American presidents, including even Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. Fortunately for Chile, things are not as bad as most Chileans think. Though economic recovery might still be a few months away, the country has what it takes to regain its leadership role as a vibrant economy and consolidating democracy in South America.


A poll released last Friday reported an approval rating of 15 percent for President Bachelet — the lowest on record for any Chilean president. The fact that she has fallen that low merits an explanation. Before leaving office in the midst of the global economic meltdown of 2009, Bachelet reached an unprecedented high of 78 percent, the highest ever for a Chilean president. When she left office in March of 2010, the New Majority leader took a position in United Nations in New York. She returned to Chile in March, 2013 to announce a new presidential run and easily won a runoff election in December later that year.


Though the economic slowdown had begun before she took office, it has accelerated under Bachelet. The economy will grow at 1.7 percent in 2016 and has averaged less than two percent growth since she returned to the presidency in March, 2014. Considering though that Bachelet reached her highest approval in 2009, when the economic contracted by one percent, Chileans must be far more pessimistic today than they were seven years ago, when the economy was in more trouble than today.


Or perhaps, the reason might be associated to the expectations Bachelet helped build when she campaigned in 2013. After four years of economic expansion under right-wing president Sebastian Piñera, Chileans took economic growth for granted. Bachelet campaigned on distributing the benefits of that growth. Making education free of charge at all levels for all Chileans was a central campaign promise. Bachelet also promised comprehensive labour reform and an ambitious rewriting of the tax code to fund higher social spending. To top things off, Bachelet also promised to replace the 1980 Constitution, drafted by the general Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, with a new text promulgated by a democratic process.


In her first two years in office, Bachelet passed reforms related to taxation and elementary and secondary education. Bachelet also succeeded in altering a much-reviled electoral law from the military era. Yet, as the economy slowed down — and because the reforms were passed against the opposition of right-wing parties — many Chileans began to resent Bachelet’s non-consensus building approach to policy-making. In her first administration, Bachelet lost her majority support in Congress and was forced to work with the opposition to pass reforms. The second time around, with a commanding legislative majority, Bachelet rammed her reforms through Congress. Chileans voted overwhelmingly for the centre-left New Majority coalition, thus rendering the opposition useless in Congress — but it seems that they were not as enthusiastic with having one coalition who governed with unchecked powers.


Though the economy has slowed down, Chileans are still moderately optimistic about the future. Only nine percent believe their situation will be worse next year, 31 percent think it will be better and 58 percent think it will be the same — however, only 14 percent believe the country will be better off next year.


People are more upbeat about their personal situation than about the direction of the country. In fact, while a majority declares themselves satisfied with their lives, they also believe a majority of other Chileans are unsatisfied. This is likely the result of people believing that the political situation is bad (68 percent, the highest on record) and that it will have consequences for the country (though not necessarily for themselves). While Chileans overwhelmingly define themselves as moderates, they place Bachelet left-of-centre and would also prefer the next president to be a centrist, the survey shows


The anomaly of people who are upbeat about their personal lives but pessimistic about the future of the country explains why public opinion is so gloomy in Chile. Yet, there are hopeful signs ahead. For better or worse, the Bachelet administration is fast becoming a lame duck. With 18 months to go, but less than a year before the scheduled presidential primaries to elect the candidates from the main coalitions, Bachelet seems ready to live up to her promise of never running again and to retire from active political life. That might be the spark Chileans need to regain some sense of national confidence.


However, that opportunity to improve the national mood will only materialize if presidential candidates for 2017 build on the optimism Chileans feel about their own lives and avoid being caught up in the pessimistic views citizens have about the future of their country. With good reasons to be moderately optimistic about the future of their country, Chileans ought to generalize their personal optimism and feel that way about their country.