Chile Mine Rescue Takes Pinera to New High in Polls

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera. Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera’s approval rating rose to the highest since taking office in March after his government rescued 33 miners trapped underground for more than two months, research group Adimark GfK said.

Pinera’s approval climbed to 63 percent in October from 53 percent in September and his previous high of 56 percent in August, the Santiago-based research group said today. The poll of 1,101 people from Oct. 6 to Oct. 27 has a margin of error of about 3 percentage points. Pinera took office in March.

The president’s increased approval rating is “strongly related” to the successful Oct. 13 rescue at the San Jose copper and gold mine in northern Chile’s Atacama Desert, Adimark said. Pinera will need to emphasize his successful management of the economy if he wants to keep the rating above 50 percent as the impact of the rescue dissipates in the coming months, Mauricio Morales, a political scientist at Diego Portales University, said today.

“Pinera is enjoying his best moment right now -- a moment of splendor,” Morales said by telephone from Santiago. “Once the mining fever passes, his approval rating probably will fall.”

Mining Minister Laurence Golborne, who led the rescue operation and helped convince congress to approve voluntary tax increases for mining companies last month, was the most popular member of Pinera’s cabinet for the third straight month in October. Golborne’s rating was 91 percent in October, followed by Education Minister and former presidential candidate Joaquin Lavin with 78 percent.

Economic Policies

Sixty-four percent of respondents approved of Pinera’s handling of the economy in October, compared with 55 percent in September and 58 percent in August, Adimark said. Finance Minister Felipe Larrain’s approval rating increased four percentage points in October to 69 percent as a result of the government’s economic policies, the research group said.

Chile’s economy, which last year suffered its worst recession in more than a decade, is set to grow as much as 5.5 percent in 2010, the most since 2005, the central bank said in its latest forecast, published Sept. 8. The unemployment rate fell to 8 percent in the three months through September from 9.7 percent in the three months through January.

The president, whose political coalition supports slowing the growth of government spending and cutting red tape, has indicated he will use his increased popularity to implement labor-safety reforms in a move that could help solidify his support among lower-income voters, Patricio Navia, a specialist in Chilean politics at New York University, said.

‘Defining Moment’

“This could be a defining moment for Pinera, who now must convert the political capital he’s gained from the rescue into political assets,” Navia said in a telephone interview a day after the rescue operation. “Historically people see right-wing presidents as supporting the interests of the wealthy. Pinera has an opportunity to show that’s not the case.”

A Center for the Study of Contemporary Reality poll showed Pinera’s approval rating climbed to 57 percent in September from 54 percent in May, the Santiago-based research group said in a report published Oct. 7. The president’s approval among top earners was 82 percent in the September poll, almost double that of the lowest earners at 42 percent, according to the poll.

The Sept. 3 to Sept. 13 poll of 1,200 people has a margin of error of 3 percentage points. Adimark’s October poll shows Pinera has an approval rating of 65 percent among top earners and 61 percent among the lowest income groups.

1 Billion Viewers

More than 1 billion people watched the rescue, the world’s longest, live on television networks around the world, Chile’s state broadcaster TVN reported.

Speaking one day after the final miner was rescued from the mine last month, Pinera said in a televised speech that his administration would propose changes to labor regulations to make the workplace safer for Chileans. Pinera said a call by shift supervisor Luis Urzua, the last miner rescued, to prevent such accidents from occurring again “touched my soul.”

“Never again in our country will we allow workers to toil in conditions as unsafe and inhumane as those in the San Jose mine,” Pinera said outside the hospital where miners were being treated. “We’ll never forget the lesson the San Jose mine taught us.”

Pinera must focus on industries beyond just mining if he wants to improve his popularity, Navia said.

“People will need to see that the commitment he’s shown the miners is a commitment he has toward the poor and working class in general,” Navia said.

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