Until a few months ago, educational reform was the backbone of Michelle Bachelet’s presidency and an election promise that helped her regain occupancy of Chile’s presidential palace.
Since last Tuesday, as a result of the recent corruption and influence peddling scandals that have swept through Chile’s political class — including through Bachelet’s own backyard, that may no longer be the case.
In a rare address to the nation broadcast on all TV stations on April 28, Bachelet revealed the transparency and anti-corruption agenda her government will pursue in response to the current crisis, marking an important shift in the president’s priorities.
“That will be my government’s stamp and the principal legacy of my presidency: leaving a more transparent, ethical and legitimate democracy to the eyes of its citizens,” Bachelet told her compatriots during the two-hour speech.
The government has acknowledged the importance of the president’s latest reforms, referring to the announced plan as “Bachelet’s fifth reform,” alongside tax, education, labor and constitutional reforms.
For Mauricio Morales, director of the Political and Electoral Observatory of Universidad Diego Portales, the focus of Bachelet’s government has changed radically, which risks derailing the progress of educational reforms.
“In the short term, I can’t see any space for the topic of education to resurge, and even less space for the process of constitutional reform,” Morales told Latin Correspondent.
“For now it seems unlikely educational reforms will resurge from the executive,” he said.
The political analyst added, however, that re-activation of the educational agenda may come from the streets.
“It may seem far-fetched, but a wave of mass protests in favor of quality education is in the government’s interest. If the executive can’t turn the tide on the agenda, let the streets do it,” Morales said.
The most awaited reforms among the announced measures affect political financing and the relationship between politics and business.
Anonymous donations will be scrapped, while the President remained intransigent when it came to corporate donations.
“Businesses will not be able to make any donations whatsoever and the transgression of these norms will be considered a crime,” Bachelet said, emphasizing that the state would be the one to fund political parties.
Parties will in turn be subject to strict controls, and more wide-ranging sanctions will also target fiscal fraud as well as corruption and bribery.
In light of ongoing revelations about business conglomerates illegally funneling money to political campaigns, three months after Bachelet’s son Sebastián Dávalos was accused of influence peddling, the announced reforms may resonate with a disillusioned public.
But the government may hit a wall in implementing the reforms.
In an audacious move, Bachelet has enshrined the upcoming reforms into the design of a new constitution — one of her campaign promises, yet a topic that had remained in the dark until now and that is expected to cause disagreement not only among the opposition but also within the governing coalition.
In September, the government plans to launch the “Constitutional Process,” whereby citizens will be consulted on the design of a new constitution, although Bachelet has remained vague on what form the consultative process will take.
Because the current constitution was inherited from General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, many consider it illegitimate and have been calling for its reform.
Bachelet’s announcement: success or political tactic?
For certain columnists in right-leaning media outlets, framing the reforms within the discussion of a new constitution, with few specific details, was no coincidence, but rather a well-planned strategy designed to divert attention from the real crisis — and a Trojan horse boosting Bachelet’s initial constitutional ambitions.
“Now the government will seek to decompress the political crisis by opening the debate on a topic that remains devoid of any substantive definition and is therefore broadly open,” sociologist Max Colodro wrote in La Tercera.
Mauricio Morales believes the government is destined to fail in its attempt to twist its political agenda.
“Comprehensibly, the government is doing what it can to come out of the crisis, but recent polls bring really bad news. It’s impossible for an unpopular government to make its reforms popular,” Morales said.
The latest polls from April indicate that 64 percent of the population disapproves of the current government, the highest disapproval rating since Bachelet took power.
A more leftist press also reads Bachelet’s announcement as a meticulously planned move, but presents it as an “all or nothing” moment that could restore her leadership, one she had progressively been regaining since her appearance in northern regions devastated by flooding.
Whether the focus on a new constitution will affect the progress of other reforms pushed by the government remains unclear.
A bill seeking to reform the teaching profession entered its legislative process in Congress on April 20, weeks after Bachelet told reporters, “We will not rush things [with the reform], but we are not going to stop, either.”
Disregarding education reform would be suicidal for a coalition whose constituency has placed high hopes on the educational program. But putting aside seemingly less urgent topics like the decriminalization of abortion or badly-needed reform of emergency services is politically feasible and may already be a reality.
Still, government officials appear confident about the road to reform, highlighting that the planned regulations will place Chile on par with international standards. As Interior Minister Rodrigo Peñailillo put it: “There is simply no turning back.”