The Economist 14Mar2020

(Ann) #1
The EconomistMarch 14th 2020 Leaders 9


2 the newly adjusted constitution, which Mr Putin has scheduled
for April 22nd. That, perhaps, is a little less in the bag, but the
Kremlin’s operatives are dab hands at suppressing protests and
neutering the press. And the rest of the changes to the constitu-
tion are designed to enhance its popularity with tradition-mind-
ed Russians, for instance by stressing that Russian law must
have primacy over international law, that state pensions must be
inflation-proof and that gay marriage will never be permitted.
None of this ought to come as a surprise. Mr Putin and his cir-
cle have made too many enemies and too much money for him to
risk giving up power voluntarily. The real question has been how
he would dress up his intention to rule indefinitely. Once before
he got around the two-term rule, by taking the supposedly less
powerful post of prime minister, swapping jobs with the pliable
Dmitri Medvedev who served as president between 2008 and

  1. Mr Medvedev then dutifully swapped back again, allowing
    Mr Putin to resume being president with his clock reset and the
    term extended from four years to six. Mr Medvedev was dumped
    as prime minister earlier this year, and the Kremlin seems to
    have opted for an even simpler run around the rules.
    The trick assumes that Mr Putin will be as weakly opposed in
    2024 and 2030 as he was in 2000, 2004, 2012 and 2018. Is that
    plausible? The timing of the changes is ominous for him. This
    week’s collapse in the oil price will hurt the economy. Despite 20
    years in charge and a clear global trend to find substitutes for fos-
    sil fuels, he has failed to do nearly enough to diversify Russia

away from oil and gas. His government has built up enough fi-
nancial reserves to last for years, but not for ever. Meanwhile,
deep-rooted corruption and a lack of competition have hobbled
the prospects for growth. Mr Putin’s political actions—annexing
Crimea, invading eastern Ukraine, meddling in other countries’
elections and presiding over the murder of opponents on foreign
soil—have made his country a pariah, subject to sanctions that
show no sign of being relaxed. Import substitution since 2014
has bought him breathing space, but for ordinary Russians life is
likely to get harder.

In the hot seat until he grows cold
Mr Putin’s popularity has faltered since the election in 2018,
partly because of a weak economy, but also because he tried to
raise the age at which Russians receive state pensions. This was
necessary but unpopular, and he watered his plans down. At mu-
nicipal elections last year his United Russia party suffered heavy
losses, especially in Moscow, despite efforts to keep strong op-
ponents off the ballot. Still, by manipulating the media and elec-
toral law, he has so far prevented any single challenger from se-
curing broad support. Mr Putin won re-election as president in
2018 with a thumping 77% of the vote, his best result ever, helped
by the fact that his most popular opponent, Alexei Navalny, was
barred from the contest on trumped-up charges of fraud. No des-
pot is immortal. But Russians have good cause to worry that their
modern-day tsar has a long future on the throne. 7


or muchof the past 30 years Chile has stood out from the rest
of Latin America as a country that seemed to be doing most
things right. It combined an open market economy with the rule
of law, stable institutions and growing social provision. Poverty
rates fell steeply and most Chileans became middle-class by offi-
cial measures. The large, sustained and sometimes violent prot-
ests that have shaken the country since last October have there-
fore come as a shock. They have called into question the success
of the “Chilean model” and its future.
What happens now in Chile matters beyond
its borders. Its protests, which have resumed
this month (see Books & arts section), are just
one manifestation of the discontent sweeping
Latin America. Several other countries have also
seen protests, though these have mainly been
more narrowly focused. The election of con-
trasting populists in Brazil and Mexico in 2018
was a further sign of anger. So were opposition
victories in recent presidential elections across the region.
It is not hard to divine the causes of this discontent. Latin
America has seen little or no economic growth since 2013. Its
new middle classes fear that they have fewer opportunities. Cor-
ruption has discredited the political class. And there is a wide-
spread sense that democracy has not brought equal treatment
and equal access to basic services for all citizens.
Several of these factors apply in Chile (see Americas section).
The right identifies the problem as slow growth combined with a

more demanding middle class. For the left, the protests are a re-
bellion against inequality and the “neoliberal model” imposed
by the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.
On the face of it the left’s complaint is far-fetched. Since 1990
democratic governments have made many reforms. Yet, the
main grievances really do concern legacies of the dictatorship: a
private pension system that fails to offer security in old age, a
segregated health system and a sense of impunity for the rich. In
addition, violence and vandalism have called into question the
ability of the state to maintain public order. The
police, once respected and left to run them-
selves, have in recent years shown themselves
to be corrupt, brutal and incompetent. They
need to be thoroughly reformed.
In an effort to placate popular anger Sebas-
tián Piñera, the embattled president, struck an
agreement to hold a plebiscite on April 26th on
whether to set up an assembly to write a new
constitution. Mr Piñera, a billionaire former businessman, has
veered between sounding tough and acknowledging that Chile
needs big changes. As if haggling over a business deal, he offered
concessions at the margin in pensions, health subsidies and so
on. A bolder approach is needed. Many Chileans want the pro-
mise of a pension system with a stronger safety-net and a univer-
sal public-health system. That means allowing private insurance
but abolishing health bodies known as Isapres, a Pinochet inven-
tion, which drain contributions into a high-priced private sys-

How to reform Chile

A new constitution offers a path out of anger and disorder

Latin America
Free download pdf