Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera has been impeached by the lower house of Congress, setting up a trial in the nation’s senate over allegations he favoured the sale of a family property while in office.

The vote to impeach passed with the bare minimum of 78 votes needed in the 155-member chamber of deputies, and followed a marathon 20-hour session. Sixty-seven legislators voted against impeachment, including several members of the opposition. Others abstained or were absent.

Piñera is unlikely to be removed by the 43-member upper house, where the opposition has only 24 of the 29 votes needed to oust a president.

But the trial will come in the heat of a general election campaign. The first round of general elections is set for 21 November and Piñera’s term ends on 11 March. Chile does not permit presidential re-election to consecutive terms.

The accusation stems from the publication of the Pandora papers, which revealed offshore financial dealings of prominent figures around the world – including Piñera, one of Chile’s wealthiest people.

The leaked documents revealed new details of a controversial deal to sell the Piñera family’s stake in the Dominga mining project.

A contract found by the project suggested that the first $138m (about Ksh15.4 billion) of the sale was made through shell companies registered in the British Virgin Islands.

The documents suggested that the final payment on the mine’s sale in 2011 hinged on the government declining to declare its location in north-central Chile a nature preserve. The government, by that time headed by Piñera, did not do so, despite appeals from environmentalists. But nor did subsequent governments.

When investigators looked into the case a few years later, Piñera said he had not been involved in managing the companies and had not even realized the connection with Dominga.

The president’s office noted last month that Piñera’s first term as president, from 2010 to 2014, had not started when the sale was agreed to, that prosecutors and courts decided in 2017 that no crime had been committed and that Piñera had not been involved. It said all due taxes were paid in Chile.

Piñera’s holdings are now managed in a blind trust, according to the statement.

The national prosecutor’s office has said it is once again investigating the case, however.

In order to get the majority needed for impeachment, the Socialist deputy Jaime Naranjo effectively stalled for 14 hours, reading a series of documents, until deputy Giorgio Jackson was able to enter the chamber to vote following a mandatory quarantine period after testing positive for the coronavirus.

Another deputy voted despite awaiting results of a coronavirus test. He slipped into the building through a side door to avoid health checks.

The minister of the presidency, Juan José Ossa, called the impeachment “a political show, a media show. It’s sad for democracy.”

A pro-government deputy, Andrés Molina, said: “It causes me shame, personally.”

Just before voting, Jackson said: “There are people who think what happened yesterday and today in the chamber is shameful. But I think what is shameful is having a president who speculates.”

By People Daily

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