Chile's political gridlock may limit effect of growing protests

Despite a year of overwhelming demonstrations in Chile, including a general strike launched yesterday, analysts say change is unlikely due to the rigidity of the Chilean political system.

Victor R. Caivano/AP
Vehicles are blocked by a burning street barricade set up by protesters during a national strike in Santiago, Chile, Wednesday. A nationwide strike shutting down Chile for two days has begun with people hurling stones at buses and police clearing nearly two-dozen burning barricades around the capital.

As Chile enters its second day of a general strike on top of ongoing, two-month-long student demonstrations, analysts said the country's growing protest movements are unlikely to win their immediate demands because of a deliberately gridlocked political system.

Chilean cities have been overwhelmed by demonstrations this year, starting with a rebellion in the southern Magallanes region over rising natural gas prices.

In April, demonstrators marched against a planned hydroelectric dam in Patagonia. For two months, a student movement has demanded an end to profiteering in education, attracting hundreds of thousands of citizens to near-weekly marches. The country's biggest association of labor unions called today's strike to support student demands and to demand better working conditions.

"In Chile, political crises have usually been ended with coup d'etats," said Ricardo Israel, dean of legal and social science at the Autonomous University of Chile. With no likelihood of such a move, he said, "it's possible that after the environment of demonstrations subsides, Chile will go on the same as before."

Strike supporters and opponents differed on whether yesterday's strike was effective.

The government said only 5 percent of public-sector workers stayed home and the biggest manufacturing group, Sofofa, said 99 percent of plants were operating normally. But the Santiago Metro reported 30 percent fewer passengers than normal, reports The Clinic, a local newspaper. Many government offices in central Santiago were closed.

Some protesters burned barricades and blocked major streets, while other strike supporters danced and sang on sidewalks. The police responded to both aggressive and peaceful protests with water cannons and tear gas.

Growing deadlock

Positions are hardening as the government finds itself outmaneuvered while protesters remain powerless to affect change on their own, said Armen Kouyoumdjian, a country risk analyst based in Vina del Mar.

"You see the sort of things the right has been saying about the students, that they are just Bolshevik subversive troublemakers, and demonizing them and playing dirty tricks," he said, referring to the center-right government of President Sebastian Piñera and its supporters. "And the students and others have started smelling blood and haven't budged much from their original positions."

The prior government, under President Michelle Bachelet, was able to coopt a similar student movement in 2006 with promises of dialogue, but Mr. Piñera has been unable to do so because his team is out of touch with the protesters, said Pablo Policzer, a Latin American politics scholar at the University of Calgary.

"This is a government of Chilean elites," Mr. Policzer said in a phone interview from Villarica in southern Chile. "They live in a quasi-apartheid system, where they go to their own schools, marry amongst themselves, and have very little contact outside of the bubbles they exist in. They just don't have connections to the social movements that are challenging this government now."

A lack of options for change

Hardening positions, a government unable to listen, and the lack of a formal outlet for public complaints may create a long-running gridlock, as no political actor has the will or power to respond to the protesters, analysts say.

Protesters are demanding a referendum, without saying exactly what they want to vote on. The Chilean constitution doesn't offer referendums, or any other way for the public to demand change. Protesters are also demanding that the country's foreign-run copper mines be nationalized so profits could be steered into education, but the current government is very unlikely to attack foreign investors, Mr. Kouyoumdjian said.

Even the 2013 presidential elections offers little hope. The constitution, imposed under the dictatorship of Augustin Pinochet in 1980, makes it difficult for someone outside the machinery of the major parties to win the presidency. While in Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia, outsiders have won out over conventional parties in the last 13 years, Chile has "no tradition of populism from either the right or the left," Mr. Israel said.

The most hopeful outcome would be a constitutional change that gave the public an opportunity to be heard, Policzer said. He said it's not impossible that the Piñera government would move in that direction.

A deadline for the student movement is approaching, Israel says. Students in both universities and public schools have been on strike and avoiding classes since June, and will have to repeat the year if they aren't back in session by October. Local governments will also lose the per-student payments used to cover teachers' salaries.

All of the analysts said the student movement has placed the issues of inequality and unequal opportunity into the public discussion. That consciousness will remain, regardless of who has political power.

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