9 July 2015. Santiago, Chile.
President Bachelet has seen her approval rating fall into the 20s and the economy has slowed significantly. But regarding her approval rating, at the risk of sounding flippant, we can say “so what?” The approval rating is just a number with no meaning at all, since there is no upcoming election. It also does accurately not reflect what is going on on the ground. As to the slowing economy, this is hardly her fault. Instead the fault lies with Chilean businessmen who have pegged their entire future that the price of copper would not fall below $3 per pound–it has–and fret that China’s economy might slow–it has done that too.
President Bachelet, of the Socialist Party, takes a pounding every day from the two newspapers with the widest circulation, at least among the educated readers: La Tercera and El Mercurio. Those papers are very much partisan, ultraconservative spokesman for the ultraconservative political parties, the RN and UDI. Bachelet could end the decades long drought here with one wave of her hand and those elements would still fault her success. But the noise emanating from the printing presses at the 150 year old El Mercurio does not matter much as the President and her coalition have solid majorities in both houses of congress.
If we take a look, briefly, at what is happening in the congress, the Bachelet agenda is moving forward, at least the most important parts of it. Her bill to make grammar school free for everyone has become law. She has succeeded in raising taxes to pay for further education reforms. But the rest of her agenda is moving forward slowly or not moving at all. Bachelet will not not end up passing all of her agenda mainly because she has she pressed the congress to work on too many things at the same time. Items before the congress now include:
- Reforming the labor laws to prevent employers from replacing striking workers
- Returning control of the grammar schools to the federal rather than local level
- Making university tuition free for all students
- Allowing abortion in the case of rape, incest, or threat to the mother
- Reforming the constitution to eliminate rules that give the minority automatic representation even when they lose (That was the dictator’s idea.)
- Changing teacher training to require certification in exchange for doubling and tripling their salaries
In addition, there have been some setbacks that have shifted the debate away from her priorities:
- Corruption scandals have engulfed mainly right-wing politicians. One of the founders of the UDI is under house arrest. (In Chile, upper class criminals are confined to the homes. Everyone else goes to prison.) Now Bachelet’s own former minister of the interior could face obstruction of justice charges related to that.
- Bachelet’s own son makes headlines every day as his wife took the dauphin to the Bank of Chile to ask for a $20 million loan to buy property which she then flipped for a huge profit. That is influence peddling and gives the right wing an opportunity to attack her.
- Crime is surging. The US Embassy just issued a security alert about the dangers of robbery.
- Because the economy is slowing, there is less money to pay for education reform.
If we took toward the finish line, we can safely say that at a minimum she will get most of her education agenda passed. That after all is what propelled her to office. Already 60% of the students have been given free university education. Now the minister of education says that this number might top out at 80%, since there is no money to fund 100% of tuition. Even the bill to reform teacher training will pass, despite the complaints of teachers who are into their 6th week of strike.
Bur among the items that will not pass include:
- Any change to abortion. There’s no abortion in Latin America. Forget it. The pope is here (Ecuador and Bolivia) this week.
- Returning control of the schools to the federal level. That is not necessary to achieve the main goal of education reform which was to make tuition free. That part is already done.
- Making the decision as to which students get admitted to which grammar schools at the federal level to weed out discrimination against the poor. That is also a type of federalization that will go no where.
- Changing the constitution. If her party has won the majority despite the current rules then do the rules matter?
In sum, Bachelet has probably done more to make actual changes than her predecessor. But that’s not much of a surprise since conservatives tend to campaign against changing laws while liberals want to change everything. As long as Bachelet works to turn those newly-enacted education laws into education policies that will actually change the situation on the ground then her tenure would have been a success. Then she can punt the rest of her agenda to the next president who will also probably be a left-of-center politician given the demographics here.
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