Report Contents

November 18, 2020


CHILE: Testing defenses against rising populist pressures

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( 3 mins)

The Senate’s constitutional commission could have the second initiative to allow people to dip into their retirement savings ready to go to a plenary Senate vote by the end of today, 18 November; the first initiative passed in July. This bill has already passed the lower house with an overwhelming majority as dozens of governing Chile Vamos (CV) coalition deputies ignored government directives and voted in favor. The government is now fighting a rear-guard action to moderate the bill and secure a commitment from legislators not to push for a third withdrawal initiative in the future. It remains an uphill battle.

President Sebastian Pinera has one other card to play: challenge the bill’s constitutionality. Yesterday, Pinera said it was an “obligation” to challenge initiatives that interfere with the executive’s exclusive faculties, though he did not mention the pension withdrawal bill specifically. The government has been cautious about a constitutional challenge because it seems to entail a lose-lose outcome. On the one hand, if the government does not challenge the pension withdrawal bill, it could signal that it is giving in to both populism and de facto parliamentarianism, while angering some within the CV who oppose the pension move. On the other, a challenge at the Constitutional Court (TC) would sink Pinera’s already-low approval rating. Plus, if a final ruling were to go against the government, it could unleash a cascade of other populist spending initiatives.

Regardless of the constitutional question, short-termism and populism are proving difficult to rein in. The CV’s lower house vote demonstrates how legislators can succumb to populist pressures as they seek to differentiate themselves from the executive, which has lost the power to control its own coalition. It will not be lost on any legislator that the main backer of the pension withdrawal bill, the leftist Pamela Jiles from the Humanist Party (PH), has seen her public approval rating jump 15 points since August, according to one poll. Another survey suggests she is now outpolling the Communist Party (PC)’s Daniel Jadue in early presidential voting intentions. Note that Jiles favors a third pension withdrawal in the future.

However, two parallel developments demonstrate that there are still limits to outright populism:

  • A proposal unveiled yesterday, 17 November, by the PC’s Camila Vallejo to scrap the requirement that constitutional proposals must be approved by a two thirds majority is not going to prosper. Altering the two thirds rule – the keystone of the November 2019 cross-party agreement to advance a new constitution – would be deeply provocative and undermine the entire constitutional re-write process. Opposition to Vallejo’s proposal does not just come from the CV, but from the opposition Christian Democrats (DC), and even from members of the left-wing Broad Front (FA), and for this reason will not advance.
  • The Senate voted earlier this week not to validate the lower house’s previous sanction against the former interior minister Victor Perez. To be sure, Perez had to resign to ensure this outcome but the Senate vote – with just enough DC and other opposition votes – laid down a marker against congressional over-reach. The censure process is supposed to be for exceptional cases but risks becoming routine as the opposition looks to keep Pinera on the defensive.