Popularity Bounce for Chile's Apologetic President Sebastian Pinera
Witte-Lebhar, Benjamin, NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs
President Sebastian Pinera had at least one thing going for him during last month's State of the Nation address: silence. Unlike in 2011, when hecklers interrupted him on several occasions (NotiSur, June 10, 2011), attendees for this year's May 21 speech--an annual tradition in Chile--kept their mouths shut, giving the former businessman ample opportunity to sell the public on the merits of his two-and-a-half-year-old government.
There were other differences between the two speeches as well. For this, his penultimate State of the Nation address, the normally unapologetic third-year president struck something of a remorseful note. "We've experienced a climate of confrontation and even, in some cases, disparagement. That's certainly not something the Chilean people deserve," he said early on in the speech. "I know that we've made mistakes, and I ask forgiveness for them."
The apology contrasted sharply with the provocative pose he struck during his previous May 21 address, when he made a number of fiery, podium-thumping proclamations, including his warning to the country's "subversives" that they would "never have the last word."
The gesture appears to have paid the beleaguered president some political dividends. A survey published in early June by the polling firm Adimark measured a sharp spike in Pinera's approval rating, which jumped 7 percentage points. Still, the conservative leader would be hard-pressed to call this a comeback; even with the sudden boost, public support for Pinera stands at just 33%, according to Adimark. Furthermore, roughly 58% of poll respondents said they disapprove of the president.
The numbers are no doubt perplexing for Pinera, a 62-year-old billionaire who came into office promising to parlay his experience as a successful investor into steady economic growth and jobs creation for the country as a whole. Chile's macroeconomic statistics suggest he has accomplished just that. Despite a devastating earthquake that struck just days before Pinera's inauguration (NotiSur, March 12, 2010), the economy has grown steadily in the past two years--by 5.2% in 2010 and 6% last year. Unemployment, meanwhile, has fallen to its lowest rate in years, dropping to just 6.6% by the end of 2011.
Pinera used last month's State of the Nation address to highlight his government's other accomplishments as well. Post-quake reconstruction, he explained, is nearly complete.
The government extended paid maternity leave from three months to six months. It pushed legislation to eliminate monthly health-insurance fees for retired people. More recently, it lobbied Congress to pass an equal-rights bill that had been kicking around the legislature since 2005.
"We don't want there to be any more cases like that of Daniel Zamudio, who lost his life to hate, intolerance, and prejudices," said Pinera, referring to a 24-year-old homosexual man who died earlier this year after being beaten and tortured by a group with apparent neo-Nazi leanings (NotiSur, April 20,2012). "We always promote a tolerant society, one that doesn't discriminate against anyone based on ethnic origin, social standing, physical appearance, religious preference, or sexual orientation."
One protest after another
Yet, for all of Pinera's efforts to underscore such achievements, what many Chileans remember instead from the past two years is a government that is often at odds with its own population. Outbreaks of popular discontent, from north to south, have put the president and his Cabinet squarely on the defensive, prompting reactions that waver confusingly between appeasement and repression.
The president enjoyed a fair amount of success during his first year in office. The improbable rescue in late 2010 of 33 miners who had spent more than two months trapped deep underground earned the conservative leader a standing ovation both at home and abroad.
By year's end, however, Pinera was already starting to stumble. …