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Opposition On Shaky Ground As Piñera Assumes Chile’s Presidency

March 31, 2010

A series of powerful aftershocks, the largest measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale, rolled through central Chile March 11, putting a natural exclamation point on what was already a historical event for the South American country – the swearing in of billionaire business Sebastian Piñera as president.

With the ground literally shaking underfoot, Piñera bowed his head to receive Chile’s red, white and blue presidential sash, a symbolic moment that marked a substantive political shift for the country. For the first time since the end of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990), Chile has swung hard to the right. In fact, Piñera is Chile’s first democratically elected conservative president in more than half a century – since 1958, when Jorge Alessandri assumed the mantle of government after narrowly beating then Sen. Salvador Allende. Exiting stage right is the center-left Concertacion coalition, which governed for two decades and oversaw Chile’s delicate transition from dictatorship to democracy.

As if the changing of the political guards wasn’t significant enough, Piñera’s inauguration also came less than two weeks after Chile was slammed by its worst natural disaster in 50 years: a monster 8.8-magnitude earthquake that struck in the early hours of Feb. 27, killing some 500 people and causing an estimated US$30 billion in damage.

Piñera has already made it clear his main priority now is recovery and reconstruction, meaning his lofty campaign promises – a million jobs, an end to poverty, corruption and crime, and improvements to the healthcare and education systems – will have to wait. Instead, his first tasks will be to modify the 2010 budget, cutting where necessary in order to secure emergency relief and reconstruction funds; loosen environmental and building regulations to stimulate construction; and change the tax structure to offer incentives for private donation.

“The best way to honor our dearly departed loved ones, our disappeared or homeless brothers, and the thousands of anonymous heroes, is to work tirelessly in order to overcome this emergency and rebuild our homes, our schools and our hospitals,” Piñera said in a nationally televised address March 18.

For now, at least, the Concertación is agreeing to back the president’s efforts. Indeed, in a meeting held five days before the change in government, the heads of the coalition’s four member parties offered Piñera a temporary “truce.” The truce was put to an early test just over a week later when both chambers of Congress passed the new president’s first piece of legislation: the so-called “bono marzo,” a 40,000 pesos (US$80) bonus to be issued to more than 4 million poor and lower-middle class Chileans.

“Our first task is to favor all the policies that seek social reconstruction after the earthquake,” new Senator and interim Socialist Party (PS) head Fluvio Rossi told reporters March 11.

Analysts agree the situation favors Piñera politically. Not only does it allow him to operate with minimal opposition, but it also gives him what until recently seemed an unlikely opportunity to make good on his call for national unity, a message he has pushed consistently since winning the election in January.

What’s not clear is if this truce – for however long it lasts – is in the best interest of the country as a whole. Critics say Chile needs to do far more than simply rebuild and could benefit, therefore, from some healthy political debate.

The earthquake, argue groups like the Chilean Association of NGOs (ACCION), exposed serious flaws in the country’s development model, which stresses privatization, direct foreign investment, outsourcing of traditional state functions and deregulation in general. While the model has certainly generated wealth for some, critics say it has also widened the gap between rich and poor, an income breach that may have factored into the violent looting that broke out in Concepción and other cities hit hard by the earthquake.

Communication has also been a major problem. With cell phone service, landline service, water, electricity, gas and even the damaged highways themselves all in private hands, it’s been extremely complicated for authorities to coordinate a basic response. Nor does the government have the raw information it needs to properly assess the situation, according to Flavia Liberona, an ACCION spokesperson and head of a Santiago environmental group called Terram.

“Three weeks after the earthquake and we still don’t have an exact number of deaths,” she said. “The authorities say they’ll let us know when they have all the information available, but when is that going to happen? Maybe a year from now?

One interpretation of the so-called truce is that the Concertación, afraid of alienating a Chilean public eager for immediate solutions, decided it can’t afford politically to be too overly critical of Piñera’s reconstruction efforts. Another possibility is that the center-left coalition, fresh off its first ever presidential defeat, simply has yet to plant its feet and grow into its new role as opposition.

“None of the (Concertación) parties has yet to have internal elections. Those debates have been postponed until June, approximately. Rather than a truce with the government, this is about the Concertación still needing to realign its internal forces,” said Claudio Fuentes, director of the Unviersidad Diego Portales’ Social Sciences Research Institute.

Whatever the reason, Concertación acquiescence does little to actually help the country – both in the short and long term, said Fuentes, who thinks there’s room for debate even over the government’s immediate recovery strategies. Should Piñera relax environmental laws? Should he offer tax incentives to spur private donations? Would he do better to generate revenue by raising taxes on large corporations?

“There are a lot of subjects where (the opposition) could go after the government – the sale of (Piñera’s) LAN stocks, the government’s delay in designating many key bureaucratic posts,” said Fuentes. “Obviously attention also needs to be focused on certain priority issues, like how to finance (the recovery and reconstruction). This requires a debate on taxes, on the reassignment of funds, the use of savings. That debate needs to happen.”

(A version of this article originally appeared March 27 in
Latin America Press/Noticias Aliadas)

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