The coronavirus crisis and simmering discontent over inequality and a neoliberal economic model has brought Chile to the brink of a major political crisis. Can President Sebastian Pinera’s conservative coalition survive?
The political atmosphere in Chile is highly charged. Parliament just adopted a controversial reform that allows citizens to have 10% of their pensions savings paid out as emergency coronavirus aid. The decision deals a blow to the conservative government of President Sebastian Pinera, which had vowed not to interfere with the decades-old private pensions scheme.
The president now finds himself with his back to the wall. Protests against the country’s neoliberal economic order, tensions within the governing coalition and the coronavirus crisis have caused the president’s approval ratings to plummet. In a recent survey, only 6% said they support Pinera, and 81% said the Chilean government’s crisis management was poor or extremely poor.
The anthropologist Pablo Ortuzar, one of the new right-wing intellectuals, said recently in a radio interview, “I’m not sure Pinera will be able to see out his term in office. The president is alone and politically isolated, while state structures are collapsing around him.”
Other representatives of the right-wing spectrum are less extreme in their diagnoses, but they are also far from optimistic. In an interview with the Chilean weekly magazine The Clinic, political scientist Daniel Mansuy stated that the current process of constitutional reform, the pension system crisis and the possible collapse of the right-wing coalition could make Pinera the “gravedigger of the Chilean presidential system.”
Last October, Chileans began taking to the streets of the capital, Santiago, to protest a spike in subway ticket prices. The protests soon grew into countrywide movement taking aim at low wages, high education and health care costs and the growing divide between the rich and poor. Under pressure, President Pinera then announced a constitutional referendum would be held in April. It has since been postponed to October due to the pandemic. Massive police crackdowns on protesters, cabinet reshuffles, half-hearted reforms and the resignation of Health Minister Jaime Manalich have left President Pinera’s government overwhelmed and helpless.