Saturday, 21 May 2011

State of the (Dis)Union

As readers of this blog will know, Chilean presidents traditionally deliver a sort of state of the union speech on 21 May. Here is the speech President Sebastian Piñera delivered this year.

Rather than comment on the speech itself, I think the most notable thing is what is happening around the speech, and around the country. Last night 40,000 chileans took to the street in Santiago to demonstrate against the construction of a hydroelectric project in Patagonia. This has been going on, although in fewer numbers, over the last few weeks and around the country. At the same time, students are demonstrating and striking against the government's education policies, and to some degree, becuase of a lack of policies in higher education.

The government is presiding over high growth rates, but its popularity doesn't break the 45% mark. In fact, if you subtract unfavorable from favorable, the government's approval ratings are something like minus 8%. It seems this government is sort of peruvian -- economic success is not translating into approval. This is not good for democracy or governability.

And the result was seen today, both inside and outside the legislature. The tension at times broke out into name calling, poster waving, and police 'escorting' hecklers from the audience. Neither opposition nor government are distinguishing themselves in this behaviour. The Concertación is increasingly frustrated. Chile's institutional structure is such that the opposition really has little else to do than oppose. But outside the legislature, the Concertación could be much more constructive.

And the government, which has the legislative ball in its court most of the time, does not seem to have come to grips with the fact that it needs the Concertación in order to get its agenda passed, as was made clear with last week's discussion on extending maternity leave to 6 months.

And it doesn't help to have the president paint the picture he did today... of a country that wasted 20 years in the wilderness, only to be saved by the current administration. It doesn't help to claim credit for policies designed and announced by the previous government, or to exaggerate productivity, export and employment figures, as this University of Chile report details.

The opposition is not reacting well to this provocation, but it is a provocation. A healthy debate is part of the return to 'normal' politics, and represents progress from the stunted dialogue of the transition years. But it appears that Chile is on the verge of losing a civic culture that it had built up over twenty years, and that spells trouble.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Chilean Republicanism

I was struck by the reaction of many Chileans to coverage of last week's royal wedding. Here's a commentary on it, published in El Mostrador.