Chile extends Congress calendar to ease legislation gridlock

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chile’s Congress will extend its working term next month as the government rushes to push through a daunting stack of reforms before its February summer recess.

Chile's President Michelle Bachelet waves as she arrives for the taking office ceremony of Argentina's President Mauricio Macri at Casa Rosada Presidential Palace in Buenos Aires, Argentina, December 10, 2015. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci

Lawmakers will continue debating and voting on reforms for a week longer than scheduled in January, said cabinet spokesman Marcelo Diaz on Thursday.

Center-left President Michelle Bachelet wants her government to at least secure the first round of votes on flagship reforms such as free university education for the poorest students, the legalization of abortion under certain circumstances, and labor reform that will give unions stronger rights.

Although Bachelet’s party holds a majority in both houses, pushing her already ambitious program through Congress has been complicated by events that have forced the government into creating a further swathe of new legislation.

That includes anti-corruption regulation following money-in-politics scandals, the cleaning up of a tax reform seen as overly complicated, and new rules to help tackle a perceived rise in crime and shore up a weak economy.

All that has contributed to a slowing in the pace of her pledged reforms, frustrating Bachelet’s core voters.

The cabinet had agreed a prioritized agenda after a meeting on Wednesday night, said Diaz.

“(Our priorities) are around education, productivity growth, the integrity agenda and the citizen security agenda,” he said.

Bachelet’s approval ratings have fallen sharply from over 50 percent when she returned to power for a second term in March 2014 to around 26 percent, although there are signs that the slide may have bottomed out.

But with her key promise of free university education moving closer to becoming law - paid for by the tax reform - support for her education policies has increased, and the student movements that created misery for her center-right predecessor Sebastian Pinera have, for now, mostly quieted down.

Reporting by Rosalba O’Brien: Editing by Diane Craft