Chile’s billionaire President Sebastián Piñera dodged an impeachment motion on Tuesday night brought after the Pandora Papers revealed a potential conflict of interest in his family’s sale of a mining project stake.
The Senate declined to impeach the conservative leader over a business deal revealed in the leak, refusing to go along with the lower chamber of Congress in opening proceedings against him. The move clears the way for Piñera to finish his term, which ends in March.
The vote was 24 in favour of impeachment, 18 against and one abstention. Those voting to charge Piñera with corruption needed at least 29 votes to pass the measure.
"The defence has forcefully disproven each one of the facts that are presented as causes of this impeachment," Senator Francisco Chahuan, from Piñera's centre-right Renovación Nacional (RN, National Renewal) party.
This means the case is closed, with the president facing no punishment over the controversial sale of a mining company in 2010 when he was serving the first of two non-consecutive terms. If impeached, Piñera could have risked up to five years in jail and a lengthy ban from holding public office.
Applause could be heard coming from the presidential headquarters of the Palacio de La Moneda after it became mathematically clear that lawmakers had summoned enough support for the president to avoid impeachment, even though a dozen senators still had to add their own votes.
The public prosecutors’ office is still conducting an investigation into the Pandora Papers revelations.
The Pandora Papers, a leak in October of about 12 million confidential financial documents, highlighted offshore transactions involving major political figures around the world.
They linked Piñera to the sale of a mining company called Dominga, through a company owned by his children, to businessman Carlos Delano, a close friend of the president, for US$152 million. The papers said a large part of the operation was carried out in the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven.
Chile's opposition has said Piñera benefitted himself and his family with the sale through information he had in the exercise of his office. It says the president's involvement pushed up the sale price.
The Chamber of Deputies voted last week to open impeachment proceedings.
"Acting as president, he benefitted [himself[ and his family in a direct way, with information that he had in the exercise of his office," opposition lawmaker Jaime Naranjo said at the time.
The call for the impeachment of Piñera – who is in the final stretch of a second term that began in March 2018 – was presented in early October by members of the opposition, who took 15 hours last week to read the charges against the president, apparently to allow one lawmaker to complete a quarantine period and still be allowed to vote.
Piñera, one of the richest men in Chile, has denied any wrongdoing and said he was cleared in a 2017 investigation of the transaction.
When the new investigation was opened last month, the president said he had "full confidence that the courts, as they have already done, will confirm there were no irregularities and also my total innocence."
It is the second impeachment case brought against Piñera, after an unsuccessful attempt to remove him from office in 2019 over an at-times brutal crackdown on protesters angry over the yawning gap between rich and poor in Chile.
The conservative leader is ending his term with low popularity and scant influence over local politics. The country is set to head to the polls on Sunday to elect Piñera's successor and a new Congress before the president's term ends.
Chileans will vote for a new leader in the November 21 vote and an eventual run-off, if needed, will take place on December 19. Piñera can’t run for re-election.
Right-wing candidate Jose Antonio Kast and left-wing deputy Gabriel Boric are the two front-runners, and are expected to advance to the second round.
Piñera and his government have been deeply unpopular since the start of a period of social unrest in October 2019. His disapproval level stood at 78 percent while only 16 percent supported the president in November, according to a poll from Cadem published last Sunday.