Chile’s governing coalition takes infighting from senate chambers to social media
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Chile’s governing coalition takes infighting from senate chambers to social media

An unusual meme circulated on the Chilean Twittersphere in late October: a picture of a young Ignacio Walker — a Chilean senator and current president of the centrist Christian Democracy (DC) party — sharing a joke with Gen. Augusto Pinochet was accompanied by a damning caption.

“Ignacito, you must carry on the model when I’m no longer here,” says the military dictator, whose 17-year reign from 1973 to 1990 saw Chile undergo fundamental economic liberalization, as well as the death or disappearance of more than 3,000 people and the arrest and torture of tens of thousands more.

“Sí, Tata,” comes the response from a grinning Walker — using the term of affection, similar to “grandfather,” still employed by those Chileans who continue to hold Pinochet in high regard. The image was tweeted by a Socialist Party (PS) deputy, Fidel Espinoza, who added “maybe this explains why we’re carrying on as we are.”

But Espinoza and Walker’s parties aren’t opponents — in fact, both are part of the center-left governing coalition of President Michelle Bachelet, Nueva Mayoría.

Espinoza’s jibe was part of a wider spat, the immediate product of the DC voting down a government initiative that aimed to criminalize profiteering (or lucro) by state-funded higher education colleges. But the split goes deeper than this. Recent weeks have seen faultlines widen in Chilean politics, as Bachelet’s ambitious reform program runs up against entrenched interests and historic divisions that still exist within Chilean society.

The antagonism and sense of legislative deadlock, fanned by a critical press, has seen Bachelet’s approval rating steadily drop below her disapproval rating — at 45-47 percent — for the first time in either in her first term (2006-10) or second period in office, which began in March 2014. Another survey placed her support as low as 37 percent.

Education is a key battleground. A publicly-funded high school and university sector was exposed to uneven liberalization in the Pinochet era, with the result that Chilean students often now pay a premium for teaching of widely-variable quality. But market forces in this instance have hardly served to drive down prices or improve standards; instead, the management of institutions is often monopolized by absent sostenedores who are alleged to spend vast sums of public money in areas only tangentially connected to students.

Read more: In the world of Chilean education, reform and unwavering protests

Links between the DC and partially state-funded colleges were highlighted by their PS detractors when the DC opposed lucro. Former party vice president Walter Oliva alone owns eight schools which received US$12 million in subsidies in 2013, according to an investigation by Chile’s Center of Investigative Journalism.

Stung by the criticism — as well as suggestions by Chile’s ambassador to Uruguay that the DC had aided Pinochet’s 1973 coup — the party’s National Council held an emergency meeting on November 3 to discuss their alleged “mistreatment” at the hands of the six other parties within the government coalition.

A system that encourages conflict

A degree of infighting is, to an extent, inevitable in the Chilean system. A complicated binomial electoral process — designed by Pinochet during the 1990 transition to democracy — limits the gains made by the winning party while simultaneously blocking out smaller groups, so parties are forced to run in broad coalitions of dissenting opinion. But as Bachelet attempts to honor her campaign promises to tackle a multitude of issues at once, including highly-sensitive areas of LGBT and reproductive rights, rhetoric on all sides has become particularly strident.

A backdrop of recent small-scale bombings — the work of subversive anarchist cells or right-wing groups, depending on who you listen to — has ratcheted up tensions, as have new judicial and journalistic investigations into Pinochet-era cases of torture and murder, allegedly committed by many still in power today. Chile’s opposing Alianza coalition is also likely keen to turn the spotlight on government failings, and away from an ongoing party-funding scandal involving many of its right-wing Independent Democratic Union (UDI) members.

For now, the DC and its fellow governing parties have buried the hatchet, following the early November meeting. Communist Party deputy Lautaro Carmona expressed his “satisfaction at the meeting and the climate of respect and brotherhood,” and reiterated the “mutual and absolute conviction” of all “to form part of Nueva Mayoría and to support the President in carrying out the [reform] programme.”

For his part, Sen. Walker said that “we value the apologies. We’re going to continue demanding improvements in the level of Chilean politics, above all avoiding disparaging remarks and insults.”

But as controversial reform efforts continue, and tensions within the government are stretched even further, Chileans are likely to see plenty more of their political class trolling each other — in the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, and in 140 characters online.