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Opinion: Chile’s political transition will not impede relief

Matthew A. Johnson is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Government. He is conducting dissertation field research in Santiago, Chile, and shares his thoughts about the upcoming political changing of the guard.

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Matthew A. Johnson is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Government. He is conducting dissertation field research in Santiago, Chile.

In the days since the Feb. 27 earthquake, the focus in Chile has turned away from the natural disaster itself and toward the recovery efforts in afflicted areas. In the wake of this transition comes another one: the political changing of the guard from President Michelle Bachelet to President-elect Sebastián Piñera on March 11. Thus, during one of Chile’s gravest crises ever, the question of whether and how the political transition will affect the cohesiveness of the recovery effort is extremely salient.

Just as the earthquake left visible cracks in many of Santiago’s buildings, the reported rumors of preexisting, behind-the-scenes tensions between Piñera and Bachelet have been on prominent display since the terremoto (earthquake). In the days immediately following the tragedy, Bachelet and Piñera maintained high profiles, but separately.

Chile’s earthquake response has largely been directed by President Bachelet, leaving President-elect Piñera with seemingly little input, save for the numerous press conferences he has held after visiting damaged sites. While Piñera was able to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it was only President Bachelet on the runway to greet her. Nor has there been visible evidence of cabinet members of the current government and the government-elect working on logistical issues together and addressing the press corps in tandem. In short, it seems the current government is largely making the bed that the incoming government will have to sleep in. To be sure, the gravity of the situation demanded immediate action by the current government. However, Bachelet has crafted a seemingly unilateral response to one of Chile’s direst crises, surprisingly enough, in the wake of her own exit.

Unlike the U.S., where presidents have the opportunity to hold two consecutive terms, the Chilean constitution disallows concurrent reelection. As a result Bachelet, despite her extremely high approval ratings (above 80 percent in January 2010), was unable to run in the recent elections. Opposed to the 2008-09 transition in the U.S. when a very popular president-elect was waiting in the wings for an unpopular incumbent’s term to expire, Chile’s “lame duck” president still enjoys the constitutional legitimacy to create a response to the earthquake, as well as the social legitimacy to do so.

But what happens after Bachelet’s term? Will the political transition allow Piñera a reshaping of the recovery effort to his liking? I would argue that Chilean response will not be altered dramatically after March 11. Political scientists often speak of something called “path dependence,” whereby extant political institutions and decisions are often difficult to change once in place. As a result, although President-elect Piñera will have discretion over long-term recovery efforts (for instance the rebuilding of roads), he will also likely find it difficult to retreat from commitments made by Bachelet. Piñera, however, should not see these constraints as a bad thing — consistent and stable government policies tend to work much better than erratic ones.

Thus, in this country known for its recent economic and political stability (and now for the stability of its infrastructure) the ensuing political transition will change the face of the Chilean response to the earthquake, but not necessarily the character of the response itself, regardless of the fault lines between Bachelet and Piñera.


The Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, the Hispanic Graduate Business Association and the group Chilenos en Austin are hosting Con Chile en el Corazón, a musical and cultural event this Saturday (March 6) from 6:30-10:30 p.m. to benefit earthquake relief efforts in Chile. Learn more about the event or how you can help support the relief efforts.

Photo by James Guppy on Flickr.