Chile president seeks to put focus back on reforms after scandals

Chile's President Michelle Bachelet reacts after delivering her annual address at the National Congress building in Valparaiso, Chile May 21, 2015. REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chilean President Michelle Bachelet acknowledged her government had endured a difficult few months and sought in her annual State of the Union address on Thursday to regain the political initiative by outlining the details of a raft of new bills. The approval rating for the center-left Bachelet has plummeted from well over 50 percent when she took office for her second term in March 2014 to 29 percent last month, a historic low for the two-time president. Last week, the president sacked four of her closest ministers in a wide-ranging cabinet reshuffle that sought to draw a line under financial scandals that have involved politicians across the spectrum as well as her own family. Bachelet began her speech to Congress in Valparaiso by addressing the "complex year," saying "of course we have had failures and I am not going to sweep them under the carpet." But the rest of her nearly two-hour speech was dedicated to unveiling or confirming measures for the rest of this year that included a bill to make university free for the majority of students and a labor reform that will strengthen unions. The labor reform should be approved later this year, she said. Other areas she touched upon included pensions, energy costs and housing subsidies, as she seeks to make good on promises to reduce sharp inequality in the South American country. Bachelet also spoke of building a new Chilean Constitution to replace the current one that dates from the dictatorship-era, another election pledge, but disappointed some lawmakers who had hoped she would outline how that would work on Thursday. The president commands a narrow majority in both houses of Congress, and despite some private criticism of her handling of the scandals has so far retained the support of all parties within her coalition, which range from Communists to centrist Christian Democrats. In order to pass education reforms, however, she will require support from independent lawmakers, while opposition votes must be secured to make any changes to the constitution. (Reporting by Rosalba O'Brien, editing by G Crosse)