Support is quickly fading for Chile’s youngest-ever president, bringing an abrupt halt to the honeymoon period for his administration as voter discontent grows over the end of pandemic-era financial stimulus.
Gabriel Boric, a 36-year-old left-winger who took office in a landslide vote in early March after making bold pledges about social change, has had the fastest fall in opinion polls of any Chilean president since the military dictatorship ended in 1990.
More people now disapprove of Boric than support him, according to three April surveys conducted by Santiago-based pollsters. The fall, pollsters say, was driven primarily by voters’ perceptions that their finances are stagnating or even getting worse.
Among those who voted for Boric in the election, some 22 per cent polled disapproved of how he is running the country, a Cadem survey found, as the president’s campaign rhetoric clashes with the complex task of curbing the generous coronavirus pandemic-related state handouts that kept the economy afloat.
“It’s like ripping off a band-aid and a deep cut is revealed,” Chilean pollster Marta Lagos said of the end to Covid-19 stimulus and early pensions savings that millions of people in Chile “have simply got used to”, she said.
A leftwing president who had vowed to increase social spending and expand the scope of the state now “takes the money away”, Lagos said. “Chileans interpret that as Boric contradicting a promise,” and the president’s popularity can only fall further, she said.
Faced with a congress where he lacks a majority, a rapidly slowing economy and mounting concerns over violent crime in the south, public discontent for the untried millennial leader has alarmed many Chileans. They fear that without public support, the new president will struggle to govern and fulfil his campaign promises.
For artisans on Chiloé Island, where Boric won by a very slim margin last December, several independent sellers no longer receive a regular $206 (177,000 pesos) universal credit introduced two years ago nationwide, which the government began phasing out late last year.
Some of them already feel worse off under Boric, who had pledged to “fight the privileges of the few” and campaigned on a promise to support rural communities and the country’s less fortunate.
Osvaldo Güineo, 28, who makes hand-knitted ponchos, explained how the cost of cooking essentials and wood to make handicrafts has gone up almost threefold since March. “Some islanders are very upset about the sudden price rises and are out of pocket,” Güineo told the FT.
Chileans have also been allowed to dip into their pension savings three times to cope with the economic fallout from the pandemic, but those payments may be at an end after the lower house of congress last month rejected a proposal for another $15bn drawdown in pension funds.
While popular with the public, those early withdrawals — approved under former president Sebastián Piñera, and that Boric supported — have depleted local capital markets and forced Chile to borrow more abroad.
After the latest pension withdrawal request was knocked back, finance minister Mario Marcel, a former central bank chief, presented a more limited plan to let people access roughly $3bn of pension cash under certain circumstances, such as buying a first home or paying down debt. Marcel said the plan would help Chileans without affecting consumer prices — but it was rejected by the lower house, sending Boric’s team back to the drawing board.
As Boric struggles to find his footing, Chile’s economy, which relies heavily on oil imports, is stuttering after a consumer boom fuelled by the government pandemic aid ended and food and energy prices surge amid soaring global inflation. The IMF adjusted its growth forecast for Chile last month to 1.5 per cent for 2022, from 11.9 per cent recorded last year.
Octavio Avendaño, political scientist at the University of Chile, pointed to several other missteps that have contributed to a decline in confidence that he said will be “very tough” to recover this year.
Within days of the presidential inauguration on March 11 a visit by the interior minister to the southern Araucanía region turned violent when gunshots were fired at the official motorcade.
Critics, including several former ministers from the left, said the trip was poorly planned. “His ministers are first-timers, and it shows,” according to Robert Funk, a Chilean academic.
The rocky start for the bearded, tattooed former student leader comes as Chile is months away from finalising a new constitution. Deliberations over the document have entered a crucial phase, with a nationwide referendum set for September 4. Last week a new provision granting special protections to the indigenous ownership of land was approved and will be included in the draft.
A successful rewrite could help Boric, who has been a staunch supporter of the process, regain public confidence, although voters are growing increasingly disenchanted with the drafting.
“It’s a big bet [supporting the constitution],” Avendaño warned. “Boric’s challenge is to create sufficient support in congress and present a clear social development plan, which he’s failing to do.”