Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

At 100 Days, Chilean President Hard to Pin Down Politically

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Jun 18 2010 (IPS) - He describes himself as centre-right, but several of his policies have been classified as “progressive”. As he completes his first 100 days in office, telegenic Chilean President Sebastián Piñera is surprising both allies and opponents, while social organisations are keeping a careful watch.

“Clearly Piñera is right-wing, but he does not represent the classical right,” Víctor Hugo de la Fuente, editor in chief of the Chilean edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, told IPS. “While he basically follows the neoliberal model, he has sought to distance himself from the right with some of his policies, and especially his different style.”

In fact the June issue of this French publication in Chile is devoted to analysing Piñera’s “neo-populism”, as the president completes 100 days in power on Saturday Jun. 19.

In de la Fuente’s view, the president is far from being a “traditional populist”, but both his “personal style”, media-savvy and distanced from political parties, and his “surprise moves” that astonish partisans and opponents alike, can be regarded as a new form of populism.

For instance, on Tuesday Jun. 15 Piñera and his wife, Cecilia Morel, spent the night at an emergency shelter in Dichato, in the central region of Bío Bío, and watched the Chilean football team’s first match in the World Cup the next day with families left homeless by the devastating Feb. 27 earthquake.

The billionaire businessman took office Mar. 11, after two decades of government by the centre-left Coalition (Concertación) of Parties for Democracy, made up of the Socialist Party, Party for Democracy, Christian Democracy Party and Social Democratic Radical Party.

A member of the conservative liberal National Renewal party, Piñera became president with the support of the Coalition for Change, which also includes the far-right Independent Democratic Union (UDI), several of whose members participated in the 1973-1990 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006).

From the very start of his involvement in politics, Piñera had a “style of his own,” de la Fuente said. For example, Piñera claims to have voted against Pinochet continuing in power, in the 1988 plebiscite, the analyst said.

Once in office, Piñera showed the full extent of his pragmatism when he proposed tax hikes for businesses to finance the reconstruction of the country after the February 8.8-magnitude quake and the subsequent tsunami, which earned him criticism from his allies.

Politicians and analysts said at the time that his administration “was like a fifth Concertación government,” and even bolder than its centre-left predecessors.

In a May 21 presidential address, Piñera said he would work to eradicate extreme poverty, which affects 3.2 percent of the population, by 2014, and poverty, which affects 13.7 percent of the population, by 2018. This would be done mainly through an “ethical family income” programme that would transfer an average of 470 dollars a month to vulnerable households, he said.

To strengthen democracy, he also confirmed his support for bills the Concertación has tried but failed to push through Congress, such as automatic voter registration on electoral rolls, voluntary voting — at present voting is compulsory, with stiff fines for defaulters — and voting rights for Chileans living abroad.

On Jun. 15, Piñera announced the drafting of a bill to regulate property rights for heterosexual or homosexual couples who are unmarried but living together, in a direct challenge to the UDI’s opposition to such a measure.

“There is no doubt that, whether as a strategy or out of conviction, President Piñera has tried to distance himself from the more orthodox right and has taken on board many of the social policies of the Concertación, even showing a willingness to take them further,” José Aylwin, co-director of the non-governmental Citizens’ Observatory, told IPS.

But he warned that Piñera “has not given up the strategy of pursuing economic growth based on the production and export of natural resources.”

This economic policy has “profound implications for the environment and human rights, and major social costs, which is why national and international organisations have called for it to be reformed,” Aylwin said.

Claudio Fuentes, head of the Institute of Social Sciences at the private Diego Portales University, said the president exhibits some populist tendencies, because “he is seeking to engage directly with society, and he makes promises he can’t always keep.” Nevertheless, “in comparative terms he cannot be said to be a populist leader,” he added.

For example, his pledge to streamline the public administration overlooks the fact that state bodies are not necessarily capable of implementing an “efficiency agenda,” Fuentes said.

Besides, any surges of populism will be damped down by his need to reach agreements with the opposition, since he has no parliamentary majority of his own, he said.

“Piñera borrows some political characteristics from French President (Nicolas) Sarkozy, like the idea of not just backing the agenda of the classical right, but also taking up causes of the political centre, in the shape of tax reform or inviting members of the opposition to join his government,” the political scientist said.

The Chilean president has also taken inspiration from the style of outgoing Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, a right-winger, in terms of staying in close contact with the people and emphasising public security, he said.

“His ability to micro-manage helps him clear up all sorts of problems. He makes his own way, thinking on his feet, taking the opportunities that arise and discarding or leaving out anything that gets in the way,” wrote political analyst Santiago Escobar in the column “La colcha de retazos del Presidente Piñera” (President Piñera’s Patchwork Quilt) published in the El Mostrador on-line newspaper.

Escobar writes, for instance, that Piñera “without blushing, has transgressed all the limits of legitimacy in terms of conflicts of interest,” because he still has not sold his television channel, Chilevisión.

“One of the dangers” of Piñera’s style is that it might “disguise the real nature of his actions, which are clearly right-wing,” de la Fuente said.

But he said it was positive for Piñera “to promise and sometimes implement some ‘more progressive’ measures,” for the good of the country, and so that citizens can demand that he deliver on his promises.

Chileans seem to be reacting positively to Piñera’s style, because his approval rating in May was 53 percent, the highest level since he took office in March.

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