Structural Reforms in Chile: Moving Forward in Midst of Political Crisis

By Claudia Heiss*

Bachelet Chile

Photo Credit: Chile Ayuda a Chile / Flickr / Creative Commons

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has done well pushing her reform agenda despite a series of scandals regarding the illegal financing of political campaigns and abuse of power by her daughter-in-law.  Bachelet started with 58 percent support and the highest electoral margin of victory since Chile’s return to democracy in 1990.  Her New Majority coalition incorporated the Communist Party and replaced the Concertación, the center-left coalition defeated in 2010 at the end of her first period, and after 20 years in power.  Bachelet’s current program reflected a left-turn and an intention to correct perceived flaws of a transition criticized for assuming too many features of the model imposed by the dictatorship.  The program included a tax plan to finance education reform introducing free university in a commoditized market of superior education.  This project was the offspring of massive student protests in 2011.  Another proposal was to replace the dictatorship-era 1980 Constitution through an “institutional, democratic, and participatory” process.

The scandals have hurt Bachelet’s popularity – she ended her first term in 2010 with 80 percent support and is now at historical lows below 30 percent – undermined the legitimacy of the political parties and Congress, and prompted a surge of social mobilizations.  (Slower economic growth, owing to the low price of copper, has contributed to the government’s unpopularity.)  But the President has scored some big wins.  In addition to the tax and education reforms she sought, the government has achieved important advances in the direction of its political program:

  • In 2015, a proportional system replaced the Binomial electoral system, which severely distorted popular will in the election of representatives and granted veto power in Congress to the political heirs of the dictatorship.
  • The campaign finance scandals led to the recent approval of a “Probity Agenda,” including higher transparency, forbidding corporate donations to political campaigns, and establishing a new law to regulate political parties.
  • A bill to make the main regional authority, the Intendente, elective rather than appointed by the President – a major step toward decentralization – has passed the Senate.
  • The decriminalization of therapeutic abortion, currently punished in only five countries, was approved by the Chamber of Deputies.
  • Congress is in the final steps of approving a labor reform meant to increase the negotiating power of workers towards their employers.
  • A complex constitutional reform process was launched last year, and this month the government selected 216 “facilitators” to assist the process and initiated a series of local meetings to discuss constitutional principles, rights, duties, and institutions. The process, the first of its kind ever in Chile, will lead to a presidential proposal to be presented to Congress.

The road ahead will not be easy for President Bachelet and her allies.  The political climate is pessimistic, and China’s economic troubles suggest the commodity bubble is over – to the detriment of the Chilean economy.  While rejected by conservatives, the changes appear as insufficient to those who want more radical reforms.  The labor bill has been criticized by union leaders as not allowing enough collective bargaining, and the proposal for constitutional change falls short of a binding participatory process like a Constituent Assembly or a referendum would be.  Bachelet, however, has deftly channeled anger about the scandals into the constructive reforms of the Probity Agenda, and she changed the perception of what is achievable in Chile in terms of progressive political and social transformations.  While public opinion is currently harsh with the government and with political elites, her second term, which ends in 2018, could in the long run consolidate her legacy as an effective reformer even in the face of adversity.

April 14, 2016

*Claudia Heiss is Assistant Professor at Universidad de Chile’s Instituto de Asuntos Públicos and researcher at the Centre for Social Conflict and Cohesion Studies, COES.

Mexico: Peña Nieto’s big push

By CLALS Staff

President Enrique Peña Nieto / Photo credit: Eneas / Foter / CC BY

President Enrique Peña Nieto / Photo credit: Eneas / Foter / CC BY

President Peña Nieto’s reformist agenda wins kudos from the business and financial class, but both a recalcitrant leftist opposition and mass organizations previously aligned with his party are taking to the streets in protest – raising serious doubts about its prospects.  In his first state of the nation speech, delivered last week, Peña Nieto pledged to plow ahead with “transformational” reforms, giving flesh to the PRI’s slogan that it is Transformando a México. In education, he’s proposed a more rigorous system for hiring, evaluating, promoting and firing teachers who have resisted change despite evidence that the current system is not equipping Mexican youth for employment.  In the energy sector, he wants to open up the oil and gas industry to foreign investment, an idea that was strictly off-limits in the past even though lagging investment has caused production in Mexico’s leading export industry to decline steadily.  He is also pursuing tax reforms that, although watered down when announced on Sunday, entail political risk and, tellingly, raise marginal rates by 2 percent for higher earners and impose a levy on capital gains.  In June, he picked a fight with powerful business leaders over control of the country’s telecommunications industry, an oligopolistic structure that imposes excess costs on consumers and producers alike, diminishing Mexico’s economic competitiveness.

The teachers unions, whose symbiosis with the PRI in the past ensured cooperation, mobilized huge protests in Mexico City, forcing Peña Nieto to delay his speech by a day and then causing monstrous traffic jams during it.  The President cloaked his announcement of the energy reform in nationalistic rhetoric, and PEMEX, the oil company, followed it up with predictions of positive results – huge increases in oil investment and production that purportedly would help to create 500,000 new oil-sector jobs by 2018 and 2.5 million by 2025. But opposition to the reform has been strident, and tens of thousands filled the Zócalo on Sunday to protest it as a “covert privatization.”  Opposition leaders are already pledging demonstrations to oppose taxes, though the likelihood of this may be diminished because the long rumored reform unexpectedly left untouched the value-added tax exemption for food and medicines, which would have been a major rallying point for the Left.

Some Mexican commentators say Peña Nieto’s leadership is already losing its shine and that his Pacto por México, the loose coalition he engineered in Congress, is at risk of falling apart.  He prevailed in his congressional showdown over the long overdue education reforms, but success in transforming the underperforming education sector appears uncertain, as the teachers are threatening more protests.  The arrest of narco bosses from the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas have not given him a bounce on the security front; indeed, Mexican press reports indicate that kidnapping, extortion and other crimes that more directly affect citizens’ lives continue to rise. Further complicating Peña Nieto’s life is news last month that the economy is slowing down.  The first contraction in four years has forced the government to cut its 2013 GDP growth forecast in half, to 1.8 percent.  The administration will undoubtedly point to data showing that PEMEX production has fallen by about a quarter in the past decade because of low investment, and will emphasize that this makes modernization of the oil sector all the more imperative.  But Mexicans have heard promises before, during NAFTA debates and since, that economic reforms and greater openness to trade and investment will massively improve their lives.  Whether there is any fuel left in that rhetorical tank remains to be seen.