Carlos Jorquera analyzes the harsh criticism that Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has been receiving in past weeks, and explains why her popularity has been declining so rapidly. Jorquera points out several important factors in Bachelet‘s loss of support: ambiguity in leadership, indecisiveness, and poor communication within government. In Jorquera‘s opinion, Bachelet must take a stand and decide to govern in order to help her country overcome its crises and set Chile on a positive, unwavering course.
Carlos Jorquera A. is a Professor at the Journalism School of Finis Terrae University in Santiago (Chile). He also teaches at the University of Development.
AN AVALANCHE OF CRITICISM HAS BEEN HOVERING over President Bachelet these days. And when the results of the phone census, approved by Bachelet’s government when her presidency was going well, showed that her popularity had dropped from 61 percent in April to 44.2 percent at the beginning of July, the criticism got a whole lot worse.
Despite the government’s constant reiterations that it does not guide itself based upon surveys, the news of a 16 percent drop in support over three months hit Bachelet’s inner circle hard.
Only a few days ago, Bachelet was met with harsh criticism upon her visit to Chiguayante in the VIII region, where storms wreaked havoc upon settlements, burying a great number of people alive under mountains of mud. Residents of the region claimed that Bachelet wanted to use the tragedy to improve her image.
It would be better if she just went home, they said, and allowed the machines to continue their work in fishing out the dozens of bodies entombed beneath layers of rock and muck.
Chile has been suffering a number of crises under Bachelett’s leadership, including rising delinquency, widespread student protests, and problems with Argentina over the distribution of gas.
THE DISMISSAL OF MINISTERS
Past President Ricardo Lagos governed as if he were the high priest of Chile, a holy leader, and it has been Bachelet’s goal, as the first woman president of the country, to desanctify the role of the President. Yet despite her best intentions uncertainty grew quickly within the cabinet about her capabilities as a leader.
So Bachelet began dismissing ministers. Three were discharged immediately, one of who was the Minister of Interior, Andres Zaldivar. Zaldivar was a Christian democrat with a long history of service in politics, but he was of little use in dealing with the education crisis, one of the widest-spread protests against the system the government has ever seen. Zaldivar was also deemed incapable of handling the increasing problems of delinquency and security throughout Chile.
THE AMBIVALENCE OF THE PRESIDENT
Even though many people were hoping for a more widespread exorcism of the cabinet (including the opposition party, whose support also dropped, 21.8 percent in the recent census), a great deal of ambivalence still surrounds Bachelet’s presidency.
The fact that she decided to change her cabinet within 125 days of being elected leaves many in Chile uncertain about her competence as the head of the nation.
Many also wonder whether Bachelet’s decision to dismiss cabinet members was influenced by internal pressures. Sergio Bitar, President of the PPD (Party for Democracy, allied with the Christian Democrats), warned that if ministers were not working well they would have to be replaced. In an interview after these statements were made, Bachelet swore that she would not be moved by pressure within government. But two weeks later she began her dismissals. Words and deeds, it appeared, were not matching up.
When she originally chose her cabinet Bachelet swore that she had picked them out with tweezers, carefully foreseeing all of the details, and dictating her choices by a self-imposed requirement for an equal number of men and women in public office. The new cabinet would be a historic step for Chile in equality, Bachelet declared. But if this was so, then why did Bachelet choose Martin Zilic, who lived over 500 kilometers from the capital, as the Minister of Education?
Zilic had to commute to Santiago to work and then return home on the weekends to be with his family, which meant dividing his energies between his loved ones and the needs and urgencies of government. Did Bachelet see no conflict in Zilic’s appointment? Perhaps not at first, but weeks later, Zilic paid for it with his dismissal.
The appointment of Ingrid Antonijevic as the Minister of Economy also raised concerns about Bachelet’s capabilities. Upon being removed, the phrase pastelero a tus pasteles began to spread in relation to Antonijevic.
The phrase literally means that the discharged minister would return to her field of expertise (corporate executive).
LACK OF RESOLVE
Bachelet, with her conciliatory tone, has led the nation ambiguously from the beginning, desiring nothing more than to please and appease. But in a country yearning for extreme changes, Bachelet has wavered in her resolve.
She finds herself now in a difficult situation in which she must balance the demands of the Chilean economy for a free and open market, and the needs of the growing masses for a better standard of living.
THE EDUCATION CRISIS
In dealing with the education crisis, Bachelet has vacillated between acknowledging the legitimacy of the students’ demands, and reproaching the repressive violence of the police against protestors. But this has not won her the favor of the students, nor the understanding of the population who has witnessed the abuses of the police and the aggression of the protestors mutely on their televisions. Many delinquents have joined the ranks of the protesting students in order to take advantage of the opportunity to incite chaos.
In response to the protests, Bachelet established a commission apart from the Congress, in which issues of interest to the country could be debated and decided upon. But the entity is more of an idea than a concrete initiative. The commission has accomplished little, and generally finds its decisions dictated by the will of the President, rather than by actual debate and consideration. Decisive steps need to be taken in order to resolve the crisis, not half steps and uncertain declarations.
The grand paradox of Bachelet’s government is that their number one concern is for careful, thoughtful communication, while at the same time their policies are marked with an extreme lack of coordination, missed opportunities, and pressured, impulsive decision making.
One Chilean journalist wondered whether we are witnessing the end of Bacheletism, but my question is what is Bacheletism? Has it ever been anything more than a half-hearted way of doing things? If it has then it is a volatile idea, without substance, without philosophy, at the very most tied to the angelical smile of its dignitary. Nothing else.
CONFRONTING CHILE’S PROBLEMS
In the end, Bachelet’s only political capital is her life story, which drove so many people to vote for her. It is not her condition as a woman, not her gender, not the image of her as Minister of Defense atop an amphibious tank.
What the people hope for now is that she goes beyond her pathological desire to conserve an equilibrium, which has paralyzed her own action. She must decide to govern, to step away from ambiguity, and to lead her country once and for all.