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Chile’s lower house votes to impeach president over mine sale

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Chile’s conservative president Sebastián Piñera is facing impeachment after the lower house of Congress voted to move against him over allegations he acted improperly in his family’s $152m sale of a mining interest.

Lawmakers voted 78-67, with three abstentions, in favour of impeachment proceedings against Piñera following a marathon all-night session. The Senate must now decide whether to remove the 71-year-old self-made billionaire from office.

The government issued a statement late on Tuesday defending Piñera, who has denied wrongdoing, and said the Chilean leader was likely to be absolved by the senate. “We have no doubt that what will prevail in the Senate is not only sanity, but justice will prevail,” said Jaime Bellolio, government spokesperson.

The president has previously said he was unaware of the details of the mine’s sale.

Addressing lower house deputies during Monday night’s debate, Piñera’s lawyer Jorge Gálvez dismissed the impeachment bid as a “political electoral manoeuvre”. Ministers have also spoken in support of the president.

Opposition lawmakers launched the impeachment bid last month after details of the 2010 mine sale were revealed in the Pandora Papers, a release of leaked files on wealth held in offshore havens by leading politicians and business people.

The leaked Pandora documents alleged that a contract signed in the British Virgin Islands stipulated that the full sale price of $152m depended on the land for the Dominga mining project not being included in an environmentally sensitive area, according to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which co-ordinated the Pandora project.

The sale condition was subsequently met by Piñera’s government, although the ICIJ said the mining project was still pending approval.

During the Congress session, Socialist party congressman Jaime Naranjo spoke for more than 14 hours to detail the allegations against the president. This allowed time for a fellow opposition lawmaker to complete a Covid-19 quarantine, arrive in Congress and make up the 78 votes needed for a majority in the 155-seat chamber.

The conduct of Piñera, whose term ends next March, had “openly broken the constitution and the law” and “gravely compromised the honour of the nation”, Naranjo said.

A lower house commission will now present the formal impeachment case to the 43-member Senate. Senators must then vote on whether to remove the president from office, for which a two-thirds majority is required. Piñera remains in office but is barred from leaving the country until the process concludes.

The impeachment vote in the lower house came less than two weeks before Chileans vote in general elections for a new Congress and in the first round of the next presidential race. Polls ahead of the November 21 vote suggest the country is sharply divided between the hard left and extreme right.

Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old radical left former student union leader who is a leading presidential contender, told the Financial Times he backed impeachment. “I think it is good for Chile that our Congress has voted in favour of the constitutional accusation against a president who is accused of bribery . . . and who doesn’t think twice about destroying nature to continue making money,” he said.

Local markets shrugged off the news, with traders anticipating that the Senate would not endorse impeachment. “This is how it looks . . . that it’s hard for this to pass the Senate,” said Igal Magendzo, chief economist at Pacífico Research in Santiago. “But in today’s Chile we see things which might be hard to imagine, but they happen.”

Robert Funk, political scientist at the University of Chile, said the Senate could vote before November 21 and that it was “not impossible” that the opposition could secure a two-thirds majority in the chamber if some lawmakers from the governing coalition sided with them, as they had done on issues such as pension funds withdrawal. “This is a more significant vote [than pensions], so it’s hard to say if they will turn around,” he added.

The latest impeachment bid is the second against Piñera. Opposition parties first attempted to remove him from office in 2019, accusing him of human rights violations during a wave of anti-government protests.

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