Less than half of Chileans now believe their democracy is 'functioning': poll

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Approval for Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera has sunk to just 6% since widespread protests against elitism and inequality broke out, with less than half of Chileans now believing the country is a functioning democracy, according to a poll released on Thursday.

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The Center for Public Studies (CEP) survey found that 81% of those polled believed the government had handled the outbreak of unrest - which started over public transport fares on Oct. 18 and continues sporadically - “badly or very badly.”

The results came the day after Pinera, a center-right billionaire elected in December 2017 on a promise of economic growth and greater development, announced an overhaul of Chile´s hated privatized pensions system after admitting the country had treated its elderly “ungratefully.”

He added that in response to the protests his administration was drafting new laws to improve the quality of public education and the health service and cut waiting lists, protect jobs and improve earnings, better protect workers, consumers and citizens’ rights and introduce stiffer penalties for monopolistic practices and white-collar crime.

But so far, Pinera´s pledges have had a limited impact in the world’s top copper exporter.

In the CEP poll, support for him fell 19 points compared with the previous poll in May last year, while disapproval rose 32 points to 82%.

“This is the worst evaluation a president has had since the return to democracy,” said Ricardo Gonzalez, CEP´s coordinator of Public Opinion.

Chile´s police and armed forces, both central and controversial players in the protests amid accusations of human rights abuses, saw trust in them plummet.

Support for the police went from 37% in 2017 to 17% today, while trust in the armed forces - who were called out by Pinera in the early days of the arrest to police a curfew - eroded from 40% to 24%.

More than half of respondents expressed support for the demonstrations and 64% said they believed the police violated human rights.

A total of 47% believed that democracy in Chile, which returned in 1990 after 17 years of military rule under General Augusto Pinochet, worked “badly or very badly,” while 44% believed that it worked “fine.”

The poll was based on 1,496 interviews across the country between Nov. 28 and Jan. 6, with a margin of error of plus or minus three points.

Reporting by Fabian Cambero; writing by Aislinn Laing; editing by Jonathan Oatis