Chile's president unpopular despite great economy

Last Updated: Thu, Jan 31, 2013 21:00 hrs

Chile announced another drop in unemployment on Thursday, along with low inflation and fast growth, numbers most leaders can only dream after a global economic crisis. But President Sebastian Pinera's popularity remains in the dumps.

The Andean country's jobless rate fell to 6.1 percent in the last quarter of 2012, the lowest in nearly six years, thanks to seasonal farm jobs and a fast economic expansion, the government said. The world's top copper producer closed the year with 5.5 percent growth and kept inflation at just 1.5 percent, way under the central bank's target.

"Since this government began, 740,000 new jobs have been created," Pinera told reporters on Thursday. "This year salaries rose more than double the rate during the previous government."

And yet, Pinera remains the most unpopular Chilean leader since Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Polls show Chileans are mostly satisfied with the economic progress, but social protests have taken their toll on the presidency. Many remain unpersuaded by Pinera, a billionaire who in 2010 became the country's first democratically elected right-wing ruler in 52 years.

As Pinera begins his last year in office, nothing seems to change their minds.

Survey results released Wednesday showed Pinera closed 2012 with a dismal 31 percent approval rating, even though 53 percent have a positive perception of their country's standing.

Factors conspiring against Pinera include "enormous hope built up during his campaign in the form of promises that people say have not been met these years," said Gustavo Martinez, a political analyst and director of the institute for public opinion at Universidad de Chile.

During Pinera's first days in office, he said extreme poverty would be eradicated by 2014, and that he would accomplish more in days than his predecessors managed in years.

Pinera began just after Chile suffered one of the strongest earthquakes in recorded history, and spent much of his time leading the reconstruction. Then, long-simmering social protests over education, Mapuche Indian issues and the environment exploded on his watch.

Pinera's personality, on display during what was perhaps excessive media exposure, and some gaffes contributed to his low numbers, Martinez said. And several cabinet members have been accused of conflicts of interests or other scandals.

One of Chile's richest businessmen, Pinera was criticized for delaying the sale of his 26 percent stake in LAN, the country's flagship airline. He ultimately sold it for about $1.5 billion.

Martinez doubts Pinera can turn around his popularity ratings during his last 13 months in office, but he expects a successful legacy to turn that around in future years. "There will be some recognition to a mandate that has not been popular," he said.

Marco Moreno, a political analyst at Universidad Central, blames "a lack of trust and credibility" in the president.

"This is the result of members of the government, and Pinera himself, being involved in a series of situations where they have been questioned because of a conflict of interest," he said.

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