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Just 46 Days in Office, Chile’s Leftist Leader Runs Into Trouble

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 4/26/2022 Matthew Malinowski, Eduardo Thomson and Valentina Fuentes

(Bloomberg) -- Hailed as the face of a new Latin American left, Chile President Gabriel Boric was not only elected in a landslide, he embraced a constitutional rewrite to turn his nation from a neoliberal mining power into a model of humane green development.

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But just six weeks in office, Boric faces turmoil, his disapproval rating up more than 30 points, his closest aide under attack for rookie mistakes, the economy sputtering and crime rising.

No Honeymoon | Presidential disapproval in first weeks in office © Bloomberg No Honeymoon | Presidential disapproval in first weeks in office

After two years of a global pandemic with inflation and supply chain troubles exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many heads of government are facing discontent. But the suddenness of Boric’s troubles, and their depth, are especially noteworthy. 

“The population doesn’t see the government advancing initiatives that solve their problems,” said Marco Moreno, director of the school of government at Universidad Central in Santiago. “It hasn’t had control of the political agenda and it doesn’t have a coalition that makes its proposals viable in congress.”

Rising disapproval rates now stand to muddle his ambitious policy proposals including tax and pension reforms, which will require legislative backing. More broadly, his challenges pose a warning for other leaders vying for power across Latin America.

For a former student leader who was admired and beloved, Boric, 36, is suddenly the object of wrath. When he visited the city of La Serena last week, a protester threw a rock, forcing his security team to move him to safety. Days earlier, he was heckled by a resident while in the Santiago district of Cerro Navia.

Violent Protests

Known for three decades of stability and growth, Chile broke out into violent street protests in late 2019, indicating that below the calm surface, enormous discontent festered. Boric rode that unhappiness to office but now faces an explosive mix of demands over public services, soaring consumer prices and jitters over a new constitution.

Boric’s challenges come from both flanks. Some communists, with whom he formed an alliance, are sniping that he’s not serious about dismantling neoliberalism. On the right, he’s dismissed as dangerously naive about the importance of capital markets and foreign investors. 

Axel Callis, director of pollster Tuinfluyes.com, said more than half of the votes for Boric were really rejections of his opponent on the right. “It was more of a strategic vote,” he said. “That segment doesn’t have strong loyalty to the president.”

Gabriel Boric Is Sworn In As Chile's President © Bloomberg Gabriel Boric Is Sworn In As Chile's President

Indeed, Boric’s support fell immediately after gaffes by Interior Minister Izkia Siches, one of his closest aides and former campaign manager. First, she traveled to the south, where a violent uprising has been growing, in hopes of a dialogue with indigenous leaders and faced shots in the air when her caravan arrived. Then, in remarks to legislators, she made the false claim that a group of deported migrants left and then returned to Chile during the prior government, and that their whereabouts were unknown.

That blunder overshadowed the president’s policy agenda, including the announcement of his first major economic package. At an event to unveil a $3.7 billion plan to help segments including women confront a worsening outlook, Boric was peppered with questions about whether he would fire Siches.

Boric’s opposition to more pension withdrawals, which propel inflation yet are popular among cash-strapped workers, hurt his standing among supporters and exposed rifts with allies. After failing to convince coalition lawmakers to reject legislation for drawdowns, Boric was forced to put forth his own, more limited plan to let workers tap retirement savings. The lower house killed both bills.

“The main challenge confronting the government today is creating a coalition whereby all lawmakers who are on President Boric’s side act in a coordinated way,” said Alvaro Elizalde, who is Senate president and also a member of the government-aligned Socialist Party.

More Realistic

The president’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment on this story. In an interview published Sunday in La Tercera, spokeswoman Camila Vallejo said the administration is assuming responsibility for its errors and working to improve.

Boric has warned that Chile faces a complex outlook, telling supporters to temper their expectations. He has emphasized that his administration’s changes will be made gradually, and that he will seek input from numerous sectors of society before advancing plans such as a tax reform.

His government “has tried to maintain a more realistic discourse since the election,” said Martina Ogaz, economist at Euroamerica in Santiago. “That has been reflected in his selection of ministers, and also in the steps they are taking before sending reform bills to congress.”

The president, who has made establishing a closer relationship with citizens a priority, is still greeted by throngs of supporters during events and at his residence in downtown Santiago. Unlike previous heads of state, Boric does not shy away from stops for selfies and hugs with his backers.

At the same time, problems such as inflation are driven by factors abroad that Boric cannot control.

More Boric Government Coverage

Chile President’s Disapproval Rating Reaches 50% in First Month
Chile Rolls Out $3.7 Billion Economic Package as Recovery Slows
Chile’s Boric Becomes President With Vow to Redistribute Wealth

That won’t stop voters from blaming him. “As the economic slowdown accelerates, the social-political pressure will increase for additional fiscal spending or a new pension fund withdrawal,” Credicorp Capital economists Samuel Carrasco and Sebastian Ronda wrote in an April 19 note.

Safety remains a deep concern. Interior Ministry Undersecretary for Crime Prevention Eduardo Vergara recently told a local radio station the country is facing the biggest public security crisis in three decades. Meanwhile, polls also show more Chileans are inclined to reject the new constitution in September’s referendum, a process that the president supports.

The constitution writers, like Boric’s administration, lean fairly far to the left and were elected by a population apparently seeking radical change. But faced with proposals that protect indigenous and gender rights while crime and inflation grow, the public is balking. 

It is, of course, still very early days in the new Chile. 

“Boric’s approval rating could recover if he manages to advance some of his transformational policies this year,” said Callis, from pollster Tuinfluyes.com. “It’s like being a coach: if you don’t win games, then people won’t like you. And there are no wins in sight in the short-term.”

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