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Will Anyone Challenge Bachelet’s Runaway Reform?

By: Contributor - Jan 14, 2015, 11:49 am
Michelle Bachelet podría ser la más radical de las reformistas en Chile
President Michelle Bachelet may prove to be one of the most radical reformists in Chilean history. (Wikimedia)

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By Daniel Birrell

The title given to influential French writer Emile Zola’s 1898 letter to the French president, “I accuse!” is perhaps more famous than its contents.

Before a delivering an excoriating denouncement of arbitrary detention and anti-Semitism by the government, Zola began by faintly praising the president. “Allow me to show my concern about maintaining your well-deserved prestige and to point out that your star which, until now, has shone so brightly, risks being dimmed by the most shameful and indelible of stains,” Zola wrote.

In Chile, however, it’s hard to even deliver slight praise for the government of President Michelle Bachelet. For her program of reforms to tax, education, the constitution, labor law, and social security represent the greatest threat to freedom we’ve faced in Chile since the political chaos that led to the 1973 coup.

Despite Bachelet’s wildly ambitious reform program, she was elected with only 3.5 million votes, or just over a quarter of voters. Consequently, her drive to transform Chilean society is like sailing a half-crewed Titanic at full steam at night, in a sea littered with icebergs. A ticking time bomb was installed in the Moneda Palace in 2014.

Tyranny of the New Majority

Democracy can prevent power from becoming arbitrary, but not simply by existing. In our continent there are several clear examples of how a slight majority can result in a democracy as oppressive as the worst of dictatorships. When it no longer guarantees individual liberty, democracy can even lead to totalitarian regimes. To focus on democracy and equality to the exclusion of defending liberty is very dangerous. Who in Chile now fights for liberty?

Christian Democracy, one of the parties making up the ruling New Majority coalition, is trying to draw a line in the sand to protect its fundamental values: the right to quality and choice in education, and a limited role for the state in society. But it has found itself pushed to the brink by its political colleagues, leading to increasing conflict. Their only weapon is to threaten to flounce out of La Moneda, leaving the New Majority in ruins.

Former president Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006) has played the role of behind-the-scenes moderator, facilitating agreements on tax reform, and pointing out the folly of scrapping Chile’s system of contracting out public works for pure ideological reasons. The New Majority has some internal forces working for common sense and consensus, but will these prove enough?

Runaway Reform

Bachelet’s objective of free and universal education at all levels, critics fear, could lead to ideological control of the population. Cracks are beginning to appear in the student movement which once supported her agenda. On the other hand, unified opposition to the reform has emerged, led by middle-class parents and those who support colegios subvencionados (subsidized private schools), where more than half of total schoolchildren study.

In response, Bachelet denounced what she called a “campaign of terror” by a shadowy oligarchy, offending in the process those who opposed the reform, voters who are drawn from across all walks of Chilean life.

But the reformist juggernaut continues, with Bachelet turning her gaze to the the current Constitution: can it really be so bad after 30 reforms approved by the New Majority’s left-wing predecessors? Is it sensible, or even possible, to embark on a complete constitutional overhaul with a mandate representing less than 30% of voters?

Should such delicate matters be entrusted to a constituent assembly, as some are suggesting, which would almost definitely mirror the complexion of the New Majority alone? Bachelet, unlike the Chilean people she claims to represent, has failed to consider these questions properly.

No More Gold Rush

As global demand for Chile’s mineral exports slumps, and the so-called super commodity cycle is exhausted; a new injection of entrepreneurial vigor is needed to take up the slack in other areas of the economy and maintain the growth of the past. Yet the New Majority instead presses ahead with reforms to labor laws and tax codes that will only hamper the competitiveness of private enterprise.

Bachelet should look out of her window once in a while. A few meters from La Moneda stands a monument to former President Jorge Alessandri (1958-1964) that warns: “Without a thriving economy, the most advanced social legislation will be futile.” And the country’s assembled business elite have not been shy in telling the current President to her face that “an anti-business climate” predominates in the Chile of today.

Inflation closed 2014 at just under 5 percent, for the first time in several decades outside the target range of the Central Bank, while the economic activity index languishes. The transmission mechanism of discontent is unemployment and a diminished purchasing power, and crime and insecurity will likely follow. The government’s approval rating sank to a record low of 36 percent in November, and further decline is likely to follow.

Bachelet’s reform program creates systemic risk in the country because it represents, at best, a precarious balance between means and ends. But it will only tell when fiscal, political, and social indicators falter, and the economy deteriorates even further. Bachelet, meanwhile, may persist in changing the face of the country at the cost of what little popularity she still has.

The Chilean opposition is not playing the role it should: it’s disjointed, devoid of ideology, and it’s inexperienced leaders lack political weight. Moreover, recent interventions have led some to speculate that former president Sebastian Piñera (2010-14) aspires to re-election as an independent candidate. In doing so, he overshadows the current opposition leadership, while remaining reluctant to assume the role of leading opposition statesman just yet.

Aside from Andrés Velasco, Bachelet’s former Finance Minister and an independent candidate in the 2014 election, it’s difficult to identify any other political figures that could come to the fore. For the opposition, so far, has failed to impress, but only sniped with criticisms from the sidelines.

Emile Zola had to flee his native country for speaking out against repression. Chile’s opposition must too grasp the standard of freedom firmly, and accept the consequences.

Translated by Rebeca Morla. Edited by Laurie Blair.