Chilean President Michelle Bachelet sought in her annual State of the Union address on Thursday to regain the political initiative by outlining the details of new bills, while acknowledging that her government has endured a difficult few months.
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 of Chile.
Earlier this month, 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 including pensions, energy costs and housing subsidies, as she seeks to make good on promises to reduce sharp inequality in the South American country.
She also promised labor reform to strengthen unions and a bill to make university free for the majority of students.
"This measure is consistent with what we proposed and we are going to continue to move forward with determination toward free [education] for all," she said.
The bill, to be introduced in the second half of the year, will initially cover 60 percent of the poorest students, expanding to 70 percent in 2018 and 100 percent in 2020, she said.
The announcement did little to placate some 6,000 protesters outside the Congress building in the port city of Valparaiso, many of them students demanding greater participation in the reform process.
The rally turned violent as masked protesters hurled stones and other projectiles at police, who fired back with water cannon.
Twenty people were wounded, including a student who suffered a severe wound to the head, said police, who made 37 arrests.
Bachelet 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.