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Chile's Bachelet 'Redirects Attention' From Corruption Scandals With Call For a New Constitution

A new constitution would do away with the current charter established in 1980 under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. But is Michelle Bachelet just deflecting mounting corruption allegations?
April 30, 2015, 5:50pm
Photo via Government of Chile

After months of corruption scandals and a case implicating wrongdoing in her family, Chilean president Michelle Bachelet surprised the country on Tuesday, saying on public television that in September she'll convene a panel to draft a new constitution.

A new constitution would do away with the current charter established in 1980 under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

"We will begin a constituent process that is open to the people — with dialogues, debates, consultations and town hall meetings — which should result in the fully democratic and civil new constitution that we all deserve," President Bachelet said, without delving into specifics.

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The president's announcement follows campaign promises made prior to being reelected to her second term in 2014. While some viewed the promise as an attempt to detract attention from the mounting scandals affecting the administration, others were pleased by the overdue announcement that a new constitution is on its way.

Long-time supporter Senator Isabel Allende — the daughter of former President Salvador Allende, ousted in the coup by Pinochet in 1973 — tweeted her approval, saying the president has "kept her word" with the Chilean people.

The announcement came as Bachelet faces her lowest approval rating ever. According to a recent Adimark poll, the president currently has the backing of just 31 percent of the public, a far cry from the 84 percent of public support tallied at the end of her first term, in March 2010.

"I wasn't expecting the announcement of the constitution. For the past few months, the media has set its agenda on corruption cases," political scientist Kenneth Bunker told VICE News. "The only way out was to redirect attention toward the only thing that is bigger than all of the problems — a new constitution."

Related: An Exclusive Look Inside Chile's First State-Approved Medical Marijuana Harvest.

Chile — often considered to be one of the least corrupt countries in Latin America — has been hit with at least three major scandals during the president's second term in office, involving high-ranking officials, businessmen, and in one case, a member of Bachelet's family.

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One is known as the "Caval case." In December 2013 the president's eldest son, Sebastián Dávalos Bachelet, met with one of the country's wealthiest men, Bank of Chile owner Andrónico Lucksic,to arrange a $10 million loan for Caval, the company owned by his wife and Bachelet's daughter-in-law, Natalia Compagnon.

The funds were granted, and then used to purchase land, which would then be resold with improved land usage rights, a decision that could have only been approved by the central government.

Those involved in the deal made more than $2.5 million in profit.

According to the Adimark survey, 97 percent of Chile's population are aware of the case, and 59 percent of those polled said their opinion of the current administration "has worsened" since the scandal broke in February.

'Now we're all going to be talking about the new constitution like idiots, while she secures impunity for those involved in the corruption cases.'

Dávalos Bachelet was forced to step down from his post as cultural subdirector in mother's administration following the revelations. He and his wife are now facing charges for illicit enrichment and influence peddling, among other accusations.

Related: Sacred Cocaine: Inside the Peruvian Sect Accused of Growing Coca in the Amazon.

Public outrage over the accusations against Bachelet's son served to shift attention away from the Penta case, another corruption scandal involving irregular campaign financing of several deputies and active senators.

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The officials allegedly committed tax fraud and participated in bribery to obtain funds from the Penta holdings group, one of the most important monetary funds in Chile.

"These cases are strong factors for the lack of confidence between the public and the politicians," Álvaro Castañon, the legislative coordinator for the Intelligent Citizen Foundation, an organization that promotes political transparency in Latin America, told VICE News.

Referring to the Penta case, Castañon called it "the most important case of political irregularities of late."

A third case over government impropriety and irregular campaign financing involves the world's largest lithium producer, SQM, a company owned by Augusto Pinochet's former son-in-law, Julio Ponce Lerou, and implicates politicians across the political spectrum, including interior minister Rodrigo Peñailillo.

The Penta case generated so much negative press that in February, Attorney General Sabas Chahuán said he would personally oversee the investigation, which is a first in Chilean political history.

Related: Peru and Chile's Maritime Rivalry Triggers Diplomatic Crisis Over Alleged Espionage.

Bachelet also also said the country will be implementing a series of anti-corruption measures.

Proposed measures include ending corporate political contributions, and the option to dismiss members of Chile's congress if irregularities are detected in their campaign financing.

"What doubt is there that she is trying to shift the focus of the narrative?" former presidential candidate for the conservative Independent Democratic Union party (UDI), Evelyn Matthei told VICE News.

"Now we're all going to be talking about the new constitution like idiots, while she secures impunity for those involved in the corruption cases," she said.

Related: Watch the VICE News Documentary The Promised Land: Cocaine and Faith in the Amazon.

Follow Nico Ríos on Twitter @NicoRios.