Chile’s democratic restoration, two decades on

For many countries in Latin America, the wave of democratization that swept the region during the 1980s offered yet another opportunity to establish constitutional arrangements that had proved to be short-lived on many previous occasions. However, for Chile the restoration of democracy in 1990 was the continuation – after an authoritarian parenthesis of seventeen years – of a long and proud tradition of constitutional rule that had been the norm throughout most of the 140 years prior to 1973, when a right-wing military coup overthrew the democratically elected but militantly Marxist government of President Salvador Allende Gossens.

Nonetheless, Chile’s transition to democracy was an obstacle race of sorts. Following a less-than-transparent 1980 referendum, the armed forces were able to impose not only a restrictive constitution that would remain in force after they left power, but also a timetable for the transition to civilian rule, under which Chilean voters would decide in a subsequent referendum if Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte – Chile’s de-facto head of state from 1973 to 1980, and “constitutional” president since 1981 – would remain in power until 1997. However, in the referendum – held twenty years ago, on October 5, 1988 – the people of Chile voted against extending Pinochet’s tenure in power, by a large majority of 56% to 44%.

The outcome of the 1988 vote paved the way for general elections the following year, after a further referendum was held to amend the 1980 constitution in order to make it more palatable to the opposition parties, which up to that point had questioned its legitimacy. Two major blocs emerged in the election: the Coalition of Parties for Democracy (in Spanish Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia), which brought together the centrist and moderate left-wing parties that had joined forces to defeat Pinochet in the 1988 referendum; and the Democracy and Progress right-wing coalition, which subsequently renamed itself the Union for the Progress of Chile and later on the Alliance (Alianza). The Concertación, which scored a landslide victory in the election, is presently composed of the centrist Christian Democratic Party (PDC), the left-of-center Party for Democracy (PPD), the Socialist Party (PS) and the Radical Social Democratic Party (PRSD), while the Alianza is formed by the rightist Independent Democratic Union (UDI) and the somewhat more moderate National Renewal (RN).

The Concertación and the Alianza have dominated Chilean politics since 1990, with Chile’s once-powerful Communist Party (PCCh) and its allies trailing far behind. Nonetheless, the Concertación has held power uninterruptedly for more than eighteen years, having prevailed in every presidential and legislative election held in Chile since 1989. The Concertación has continued the free-market economic policies initiated by Gen. Pinochet’s regime (while softening its rougher edges), and Chile has enjoyed economic and political stability under the Concertación, although extreme poverty remains a major problem. Moreover, the Alliance parties have been hampered by their association with Pinochet’s dictatorship, which was enthusiastically supported by most right-wing politicians (to be certain, many Christian Democrats initially supported the 1973 coup as well, but PDC eventually came to oppose Pinochet’s regime, which brought it closer to the leftist parties). That said, both the 1999-2000 presidential election and the 2001 legislative elections were closely fought contests between the Concertación and the Alianza.

Although the Concertación parties had acknowledged the legitimacy of the 1980 constitution after the 1989 referendum, they made it clear they remained unhappy with a number of provisions they regarded as undemocratic, among them the nine nonelected members of the Senate – originally appointed by Pinochet – which for many years gave the rightist parties a majority in the upper house of Chile’s National Congress.

The binomial electoral system used in congressional elections has been another point of contention. Under this system, members of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies are chosen in two-member districts, but the winning list in any given district can only secure both seats if it outpolls the list arriving in second place by more than two-to-one; otherwise the top two lists get one seat each. In practice, the system favors the runner-up list – usually the Alliance – which can capture 50% of a district’s representation (one of two seats) with as little as one-third of the vote, and sometimes even less. The binomial system also punishes smaller groups that usually can’t make it to first or second place, such as the Communist Party-led lists. More importantly, the system compels parties to run in electoral coalitions, as otherwise they risk winning few or no seats.

Incidentally, the controversy over the electoral system does not extend to the runoff voting system used in presidential elections, generally regarded as an improvement over the procedure provided by Chile’s previous 1925 constitution, under which the sitting Congress chose the president when no candidate won an absolute majority of the popular vote. It should also be noted that Chilean elections since 1989 – presidential, legislative and municipal – have all been carried out in an exemplary manner.

While repeated attempts to reform the electoral system have proved unsuccessful, successive Concertación governments have been able to amend the constitution to reduce the president’s term from eight years to six, and then to four years; to eliminate the Senate’s ex officio seats (including those reserved for former presidents); to empower the president with the authority to dismiss heads of the armed forces’ branches and the national police; and to transform the military-influenced National Security Council into a presidential advisory body. Meanwhile, relations between Chile’s civilian rulers and the military have come a long way since the early days of the transition, when Gen. Pinochet – who continued as head of the Army until 1998 – maintained a confrontational attitude with the Concertación governments; in 2003, the army pledged to “never again” resort to military intervention.

The 1980 constitution provided a lifetime Senate seat for Pinochet upon his retirement as commander of the Army, but any plans he may have entertained about playing the role of an elder statesman were soon dashed. Instead, a 16-month detention in the United Kingdom (while awaiting possible extradition to Spain) became the opening act for a seemingly endless succession of legal wrangles. In 2004 it was found out that Pinochet had stashed millions of dollars in secret foreign bank accounts; the revelation proved extremely damaging to the former dictator, who died two years later, before he could be prosecuted for the numerous human right abuses that took place during his tenure in power. Nonetheless, following Pinochet’s detention in the U.K., Chilean courts began to indict high-ranking military officers (among them a number of retired generals) for human rights violations.

Since 1989, Chile has had four elected civilian presidents: Patricio Aylwin Azócar (1990-94), Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle (1994-2000), Ricardo Lagos Escobar (2000-2006) and Michelle Bachelet Jeria (2006- ); Aylwin and Frei are Christian Democrats, while Lagos and Bachelet are Socialists. Although Michelle Bachelet made history when she became Chile’s first-ever female president, her term in office was marred early on by nationwide demonstrations by high school students protesting poor school conditions, and subsequently by street protests over the botched implementation of the Transantiago transportation program in Chile’s capital.

President Bachelet is constitutionally barred from running for re-election in 2009, and opinion polls have her 2006 runoff rival, Sebastián Piñera of National Renewal as the early favorite. However, one thing is clear, irrespective of the election outcome: Chile has resumed its tradition of democratic governance, and it is very unlikely the country will deviate from that path for the foreseeable future.


Originally published at Global Economy Matters and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

One Response to "Chile’s democratic restoration, two decades on"

  1. Anonymous   October 6, 2008 at 1:44 pm

    This is a good sumary of the recent history of Chile. I am proud of the democatric values of my country and that democracy was recovered by the poeple excercizing their right to vote. I voted for the first time in the referendum of 1988 with pride.Viva Chile