Chile’s billionaire president should look to Macri, not Trump, as a role model

Getty Images

Stop us if you have heard this one before.

An independent-minded, wealthy businessman is elected president by promising to rejuvenate the nation’s economy with his private-sector mojo. While his election shakes up the political system, the magnate-turned-politician still faces opposition from traditional figures in the legislature. To make good on his campaign promises, he must find a way to move his ambitious agenda through a skeptical congress.

Sound familiar? In this case, the president is not Donald J. Trump, but rather Sebastián Piñera, who was elected earlier this month to lead Chile. Like Trump, Piñera is a billionaire who built his reputation in the entertainment business. (He once owned Chilevisión, one of Chile’s largest networks.) Also like Trump, Piñera’s private-sector success propelled his presidential campaign.

But while their business bona fides and outsider credentials are similar, Piñera has promised a decidedly non-Trumpian approach to his presidency. The conservative coalition he leads is in the minority in both the Lower and Upper Houses of the Chilean congress, so he cannot afford to advance legislation on party-line votes. Rather, to fulfill his pledges to reduce taxes, slash regulations and rein in the budget deficit, Piñera will have to navigate a complex political landscape and find common cause with centrists who opposed his candidacy.

If Piñera is looking for a model for that challenge, he should look south, not north, to another tycoon who shocked the establishment with a surprise presidential victory. In neighboring Argentina, Mauricio Macri’s 2015 triumph sparked fears of legislative gridlock. But Macri, whose center-right coalition lacks a majority in either house of congress, has advanced a range of significant reforms to reverse the damage done to the Argentine economy by his populist predecessors. Relying upon a gradualist approach and ad hoc coalitions, Macri won congressional approval of two supreme court justices, a controversial settlement with international bondholders and major pension reform. In October, voters rewarded Macri’s strategy; his coalition finished first nationally, giving momentum to his reform platform.

As Piñera prepares for his second, non-consecutive presidential term, he should import the legislative approach that has thrived on the other side of the Andes. An incremental, bipartisan style will be needed as Chile grapples with low copper prices and its slowest rate of economic growth in decades. Perhaps Trump will also follow suit. Just a few days ago, he took a break from digs at Democrats on Twitter to muse about the potential for a bipartisan infrastructure deal.

Benjamin Gedan was a South America director on the National Security Council under President Obama. He now is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. William Schuette is a research assistant at the Wilson Center.