Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Piñera’s Penguins

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May is a month during which students traditionally protest. In 2006, secondary-school students took to the streets in what was dubbed the “Penguin Revolution,” demanding that the Michelle Bachelet government do something about public education.  The movement managed to force an education minister to resign and to establish some dialogue with the government. But broader structural reforms never really got off the ground.

The same students, today in university, have taken to the streets in even greater numbers. But this time they’re facing a government that has little patience for mass demonstrations, little understanding of social movements and little inclination to strengthen the public education system. Structural reforms such as financing the public system, teacher quality and whether private universities profit from student enrollment (the law says they cannot, but in practice loopholes make it possible) remain very much part of the students’ demands.

In fact, since March, the government of President Sebastián Piñera has faced a series of demonstrations not only from the educational sector, but also from opponents to a hydroelectric project and in favor of sexual diversity. Like the Penguin movement of five years ago, the striking thing is the heterogeneous nature of those taking part. Of the hundreds of thousands who have taken to the Alameda, Santiago’s main thoroughfare, there has been a wide range of ages, socioeconomic backgrounds and political affiliations.

Which is precisely the point. Those marching for better public education, the environment and sexual diversity may be left or right, Concertación or Alianza, or, most likely, neither of the two coalitions. Recent public opinion polls confirm this trend. While the Piñera government lingers with 31 percent approval and 60 percent disapproval, the opposition Concertación is actually doing worse, garnering 68 percent disapproval. With an economy growing at about 6 percent, why such political discontent?

The reasons are both short and long term, transient and structural. On the transient side there seems to be a reaction to the government’s less than expert handling of various crises. Besides the rescue of 33 miners back in October, the reaction to most other issues appears improvised. When a demonstration was organized almost overnight in August 2010 to protest the approval of an energy generating plant in an ecologically sensitive area, the president simply overruled the decision, sending the signal that he was willing to undermine the institutions responsible for making those choices, and that public demonstrations would achieve the desired results. 

And just last week, the president’s announcement of a $40 billion education fund included few details on how the funds would be spent, where they would come from (whether they were new monies or redirected resources) and whether the government did or did not favor a change in the law prohibiting for-profit higher-learning institutions.

The issue of for-profit education is particularly salient in the aftermath of a credit card fraud scandal involving a major department store. It highlighted the average Chilean’s dependence on credit for everything from groceries to education.  In this sense, it may also be that the economy—where growth continues to be fuelled by high copper prices—is actually hurting most Chileans.

One interesting figure that appears in last week’s Adimark poll is that only 42 percent of Chileans approve of the way the economy is being handled, down from 64 percent in October (in the euphoria of the miners’ rescue). This may have something to do with inflation, which is almost twice as high as it was last year, and which is affecting staples such as gas, food and utilities. In other words, while the finance ministry may feel confident about the macro picture, Chileans are feeling poorer.

None of this explains the levels of disenfranchisement and discontent that is revealed both on the streets and in public opinion polls. For that, one has to understand that despite massive public investment (mostly) in education infrastructure, the highly privatized educational system implemented by the military regime was maintained by the four governments of the Concertación.

Any efforts by the opposition to lead the charge against Piñera, therefore, sound rather hollow. At the same time, both the bionominal electoral system (also implemented in the dying days of the dictatorship) and the parties themselves have conspired to limit participation in the party system. Not only is it difficult for small parties to enter competitive electoral politics unless they reach electoral pacts with one of the major coalitions, it is also hard for average Chileans to partake in party politics. Indeed the Concertación, despite having lost power last year, remains dominated by the same leaders who led the democratic transition, and in some cases were even active in politics prior to 1973. Ideological, programmatic and leadership renewal has not occurred.

With a government still making beginners’ mistakes and an opposition unwilling to take the risks required to offer something innovative, the ground is ripe for new leaders, or at least for pressure to reform the system itself.

From a new constitution and plebiscitary democracy, to reforming the electoral system and allowing young leaders to emerge through primaries, the institutional arrangements that have guaranteed Chile’s economic growth and political stability since 1990 are no longer doing so. This makes it increasingly likely that time is fast approaching for change in Chile.

Robert L. Funk is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He is a professor of political science and deputy director of the University of Chile’s Institute for Public Affairs.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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