SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chilean President Sebastian Pinera shuffled his cabinet on Monday to allow ministers with presidential aspirations to leave, as his embattled conservative coalition seeks support before presidential elections in November 2013.
The unpopular Pinera’s right-wing bloc suffered a loss in local elections last month, which likely accelerated the departure of presidential hopefuls bracing for leftist former President Michelle Bachelet to make a comeback bid.
Public Works Minister Laurence Golborne, a charismatic businessman, and Defence Minister Andres Allamand, a seasoned politician, who are seen as the right’s best chance to retain the presidency, both left the government.
“(Golborne and Allamand) are taking up what I see as the most noble of duties, missions and responsibilities that a citizen of our country can undertake: aspiring to the presidency,” Pinera said at a ceremony to mark the cabinet change. “Go travel our country, region by region ... to conquer a new majority of Chileans.”
Many Chileans hoped Pinera, a former airline magnate, would tackle social inequalities in Chile more effectively than his predecessors, but polls show they are disappointed so far.
Pinera’s trusted advisor Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter was appointed Defence Minister, government spokesman Andres Chadwick was named Interior Minister and Santiago’s governor Cecilia Perez became spokeswoman. Deputy Public Works Minister Loreto Silva replaced Golborne as minister.
National Heritage minister Catalina Parot also left in Pinera’s third sweeping cabinet change, which is not expected to significantly affect policy in the world No. 1 copper producer.
Pinera, a billionaire is rated the most unpopular leader in Chile since the end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1990. He has been battered by protests demanding free and improved education, stricter environmental laws and greater regional autonomy.
Under Chilean law, Pinera is banned from running for a second consecutive term. The far more popular Bachelet, now the head of a United Nations entity that advocates gender equality and the empowerment of women, has not said whether she will run again for the presidency.
Both Golborne and Allamand shot to fame in adverse circumstances.
Former mining minister Golborne’s management of the successful two-month operation to hoist 33 trapped miners from the bowels of the earth turned the former CEO of retailer Cencosud into one of the country’s most popular politicians.
Allamand gained media exposure after a small plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean off the remote Juan Fernandez islands in September last year, killing all 21 aboard, including a local TV presenter.
Recent polls show Bachelet is more popular than either of the right-wing politicians, but analysts cautioned that the paediatrician-turned-politician is unlikely to breeze back to the presidential palace, should she run.
High levels of absenteeism in municipal elections and low popularity ratings for both the right and left highlight many Chileans’ discontent with politics.
Chile’s economy, Latin America’s poster child for stability, is set to grow at a brisk 5 percent this year. But income inequality has barely budged since 1990 despite windfalls from copper and ranks among the highest of members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Reporting by Santiago newsroom; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer and Anthony Esposito; Editing by Bill Trott and Christopher Wilson