Violent protests as Chile’s embattled president seeks to shift focus to reforms

A man holding a camera is detained during a rally, as Chile‘s President Michelle Bachelet delivers a speech inside the National Congress, in Valparaiso city, May 21, 2015. — Reuters pic
A man holding a camera is detained during a rally, as Chile‘s President Michelle Bachelet delivers a speech inside the National Congress, in Valparaiso city, May 21, 2015. — Reuters pic

VALPARAÍSO (Chile), May 22 — Chile’s embattled President Michelle Bachelet sought to get her reform agenda back on track in her annual address to Congress yesterday, as anti-government protests outside descended into clashes with police.

Bachelet, who has been struggling to reboot her administration amid a series of corruption scandals, fulfilled a key promise from her 2013 election campaign by announcing a bill to provide free university education to 260,000 of the poorest students, starting next year.

“This measure is consistent with what we proposed and we are going to continue to move forward with determination toward free (education) for all,” she told lawmakers in her state of the nation address.

The bill, to be introduced in the second half of the year, will initially cover 60 per cent of the poorest students, expanding to 70 per cent in 2018 and 100 per cent in 2020, she said.

The announcement did little to placate some 6,000 protesters outside the Congress building in the port city of Valparaiso, many of them students demanding greater participation in the reform process.

The rally turned violent as masked protesters hurled stones and other projectiles at police, who fired back with water cannon.

Twenty people were wounded, including a student who suffered a severe wound to the head, said police, who made 37 arrests.

Bachelet’s popularity has plunged to its lowest ever, 29 per cent, since accusations emerged that her son and his wife used political influence and inside information to make US$5 million on a shady real estate deal.

A separate campaign-finance scandal involving some of the country’s biggest firms has also been damaging.

A demonstrator sprays an outline around another protester pretending to be dead, in reference to a student shot dead on May 14 after a protest march, as Chile‘s President Michelle Bachelet delivers a speech inside the National Congress, in Valparaiso city, May 21, 2015. — Reuters pic
A demonstrator sprays an outline around another protester pretending to be dead, in reference to a student shot dead on May 14 after a protest march, as Chile‘s President Michelle Bachelet delivers a speech inside the National Congress, in Valparaiso city, May 21, 2015. — Reuters pic

With protesters calling for her resignation, the Socialist leader’s ambitious agenda to  overhaul the inegalitarian education system and change the constitution inherited from dictator Augusto Pinochet have all but ground to a halt.

Bachelet has not been implicated in her son’s corruption case, and denies any knowledge of the real estate deal.

But the scandal has been damaging for a politician who vowed on the campaign trail to fight inequality and the privileges enjoyed by the Chilean elite.

In her speech, Bachelet repeated her promise to begin drafting a new constitution in September, but did not go into details.

The current constitution was ratified in a 1980 plebiscite, in the middle of Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-1990).

It has been amended but never fundamentally overhauled since the return to democracy. — AFP

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