Chile: Student mobilizations debilitate government’s reputation
Sebastián Piñera must be wondering where it all went wrong. Chile’s conservative, technocratic president has never inspired the stratospheric level of popularity enjoyed by his predecessor Michelle Bachelet (2006-10), but one year ago, he was riding high in the polls following the successful rescue of 33 trapped miners from the San José mine. Now, two years into his four-year term, Piñera faces a rising tide of social unrest – most notably the mass student mobilizations that began in May and have continued ever since.
It is true that Piñera is not the first Chilean president to face student unrest; in 2006, Bachelet herself was temporarily left looking vulnerable by large-scale protests over the state of the secondary education system. However, this year’s protests have been different in both scale and impact, with tens of thousands of students and sympathizers regularly marching in Santiago and other cities to demand universal free higher education and the elimination of state subsidies for educational establishments that operate on a for-profit basis.
Worse still, it is becoming increasingly clear that the students are winning the propaganda war. Led by the charismatic Camila Vallejo and Giorgio Jackson, they have secured blanket media coverage and focused attention firmly on the deficiencies of the public education system. According to a recent study by the Center for the Study of Contemporary Reality (CERC), 73% of Chileans now view education as the most pressing issue facing the country, up from 24% in May. According to the same survey, 89% of the public (including 80% of self-proclaimed right-wing voters) support the students and their demands. Meanwhile, Piñera’s personal approval rating has plummeted, and only half of those who voted for him in 2010 have declared that they would do so again.
Although protest leaders deserve credit for effectively mobilizing public support, the government must shoulder much of the blame for its declining popularity. Recent initiatives – most notably invoking a law from the era of former president Augusto Pinochet (1974-90) allowing suspected trouble-makers to be detained for up to six months without trial – have prompted allegations that it is more interested in suppressing dissent than addressing the very real problems of Chile’s education system.
This highlights a deeper problem facing the administration. While just over half of Chileans voted for Piñera in 2010, many – up to 71%, according to a recent survey – view his whole-hearted embrace of the free market with suspicion and believe that his government acts chiefly in the interests of big business, rather than those of the Chilean public. The gulf in values is becoming increasingly apparent between the right-wing administration and the public it represents, whose values are in many ways closer to those of the Concertación, the center-left coalition which had governed Chile for 20 years until Piñera’s victory.
In the immediate term, the student protests are likely to have few implications for business. While demonstrations are increasingly accompanied by sporadic acts of violence, these are highly unlikely to target business personnel or premises. Businesses operating in Santiago report that the main problem for them stems from the temporary disruption of transportation during marches – and with routes announced in advance, even this can be easily avoided.
The longer the dispute drags on, however, the more it threatens to inflict permanent damage on the government’s reputation and prevent it from registering any significant policy achievements before campaigning for the next elections, undermining the ruling Alianza coalition’s chances of holding onto power beyond the end of Piñera’s term in 2014. An opposition victory is far from a foregone conclusion: the opposition Concertación coalition has been in disarray since its election defeat two years ago, and there are lingering questions over its continuing relevance now that it has outlived its original purpose of removing Pinochet from power. However, the current situation presents a golden opportunity for the Concertación to capitalize on the government’s woes, and there is growing consensus within Chile that the opposition is the favorite to return to power in 2014, particularly if Bachelet heeds the widespread calls for her to run as the Concertación candidate.
An opposition victory in 2014 would in itself have little impact on the business environment. While nominally positioned in the center-left of the political spectrum, in practice the Concertación is committed to the market-friendly economic model introduced during its two decades in power. However, the student protests have fueled the growing feeling in Chile that with democracy fully consolidated and the economy booming on the back of high copper revenues, it is time to tackle long-standing inequality in terms of income and access to public services – a priority which is likely to take center stage under a future Concertación government. In the longer term, this has the potential to make Chile even more competitive as an investment destination, by addressing the deficits in education and workforce skills, which are widely viewed as the country’s Achilles’ heel.
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