In Final State of the Nation Address, President Sebastian Pinera Makes a Pitch for Political Continuity
Witte-Lebhar, Benjamin, NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs
Taking the podium last month for his fourth and final State of the Nation speech, President Sebastian Pinera delivered a resounding toot of his own horn, citing an array of facts and figures to make the case that Chileans are better off now than they were when he took office three years ago. The approach looks to have paid dividends: a poll released in early June showed a six-point bump in Pinera's approval rating. But with Chile's next election just five months away, the president's conservative coalition still has some convincing to do if it hopes to stay in power beyond March 2014, when Pinera is set to leave office.
Because of Chile's term-limit laws, which prohibit presidents from serving consecutive terms, Pinera cannot immediately stand for re-election. His coalition, the two-party Alianza, is instead being represented by a pair of recent Cabinet members: Pablo Longueira of the far-right Union Democrata Independiente (UDI) and Andres Allamand of the center-right Renovacion Nacional (RN). The two candidates, veterans of their respective parties, are set to compete later this month in an intracoalition primary. For the moment, both are considered long shots to beat the leading opposition candidate, former President Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010), in the upcoming Nov. 17 election. A runoff, should it be necessary, is scheduled for Dec. 15.
Desperate to blow a little wind into the Alianza's sagging sails, Pinera spent much of his speech --which was held, as tradition dictates, on May 21--focusing on his administration's economic accomplishments. Since his presidency began, Chile's economy has grown at an average annual rate of 5.8%, tops among all members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Pinera noted. During that same three-year span, he added, the country's annual per capita GDP jumped from US$15,000 to US$20,000. Investment and wages have also increased, while unemployment has fallen to a record low.
"As president of all the Chilean people, I can't help but feel proud of Chile, whose achievements, which have been occurring at a time of global uncertainty, are being acknowledged and admired abroad," the president said.
The May 21 address also gave Pinera an opportunity to take a few thinly veiled swings at front-runner Bachelet. Without mentioning the popular ex-president by name, Pinera offered a scathing assessment of his predecessor's economic stewardship. "These have without a doubt been very difficult times to lead," he said. "When we took office, the economy was losing its capacity to grow, to create jobs and increase salaries. Poverty and inequality were increasing. Education quality was stagnant. Investment and productivity were dropping."
Under his leadership, in contrast, the economy has created 800,000 jobs, Pinera boasted. In Latin America, Chile is second to only Brazil when it comes to foreign direct investment (FDI). Automobile sales have doubled. Average house size has gone up. People are going to the movies more frequently. Public-education spending has increased: from less than US$9 billion in 2009 to US $14 billion last year. There has even been growth in the number of books being written in Chile, the president noted.
"Chile is a better place nowadays to be born, to study, to work, to start a business, to form a family, and to get old. To sum it up, it's a better country to live in than it was three years ago," said Pinera.
Among the country's political leaders, reactions to the May 21 presidential address were predictably partisan. While Pinera's allies hailed the speech as a triumph, opponents focused on what the president left out of his speech. Pinera failed, for example, to discuss consumer protection, said Ignacio Walker, head of the centrist Partido Democrata Cristiano (DC). Nor did he outline lasting solutions to the country's energy and education problems, the DC leader told Radio Cooperativa. …