Monday, 18 July 2011

The Moneda Shuffle

The much anticipated cabinet shuffle finally took place today, and it was major surgery for a government suffering from chronic illness. I commented on the shuffle on the radio this evening. Basically I mentioned the following points:

1. It was clear the Education Minister Lavin had to go. Rather than eliminate him completely, he was moved to the Ministry of Planning, in charge of social programs. Because of its high profile, high budget, and social implications, the UDI has insisted on holding on to this ministry. Unfortunately, making room for Lavin meant removing a very good guy, Felipe Kast, who was doing a good job. Kast deserved better.

2. Into Education went former Justice Minister Felipe Bulnes, who was also doing a good job. Education is a prize of sorts, as his good performance led the president to ask him to resolve the government's most important headache. However, Education is a ministry that tends to eat up its ministers. If Bulnes does well here, he becomes presidential material.

3. Two old-school UDI politicians are brought in: Pablo Longueira into Economy and Andres Chadwick becomes the government spokesman. These are seen as signs that the government recognizes its need to strengthen the way it does politics... the politics of politics, as it were. However, most observers are puzzled as to why Longueira was put in Economy -- not his strong suit. And the most obvious comment on Chadwick is that he is the president's cousin. The optics, at the very least, are not good.

4. Laurence Golborne, the hero of the miners' rescue, is moved from Mining and Energy to Public Works. This is a bit of a reward for Golborne, in that he no longer has to deal with the environmentalist opposition to Hydroaysen and takes over a ministry which offers the opportunity to inaugurate roads and bridges. It is the ministry that Ricardo Lagos used to leverage his popularity straight to the presidency.

5. Many were surprised that Interior Minister Hinzpeter survived, as he has been a target of the UDI since day one, and has had a few major missteps. He comes out strengthened by the vote of confidence the president has in him. Piñera has made it clear that Hinzpeter is in for the long haul, and has paid a price in other ministries to keep him. The UDI, in general, emerges as the dominant party in this government. No more talk of new right.

6. Just as Hinzpeter is strenghthened by getting to keep his job, the Secretary General of the Presidency, Cristian Larroulet, is weakened by getting to keep his. Most evaluations of the job he has done in the ministry, which is a kind of prime ministership, responsible for various aspects of public policy design and dealing with Congress, have been lukewarm at best. In fact, it is likely that Chadwick will handle much of the political dealings with Congress. Larroulet probably got to keep his job in exchange for the other concessions the president gave the UDI.

The bottom line is that a cabinet shuffle is always about two things; fixing those areas which are not doing too well, and responding to a public evaluation of how things are going. They allow the government to press the reset button. In this sense, the cabinet shuffle was was past due, and by making such deep and broad changes, the president has given the signal that he recognizes that major surgery was required. Good for President Piñera.

But if one considers what the underlying challenge for the government is -- a popular demand for more political representation and accountability -- this shuffle does quite the opposite. It removes the two youngest members of the cabinet, Kast and von Baer. It brings in two senators, allowing the UDI to select who will replace them in the Senate, thereby undermining the popular will of the voters who elected them. It brings in more hard line UDI politicians with direct links to the architect of the military regime's constitution, Jaime Guzman, weakening the Hinzpeterian argument for a new, more liberal, right.

In other words, one step forward, two steps back.

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