Democratic health of Chile

The current level of democratic health in Chile, a significant improvement upon the Augusto Pinochet era of 1973- 1989, can be traced to constitutional changes in 1980, 1989 and 2005, and historic events between 1970 and 1973. The willingness of political parties to negotiate and build consensus since 1989 may indicate that the government has become more resistant to future abuses, and reflect the tenuous relationship that Chileans have had with democracy. This essay will include a summary of how constitutional change and historic events have affected the state of democracy, particularly as it has manifested itself through the electoral system and political parties.

The 1970 election of Dr. Salvador Allende, the 1973 coup d’état, the 1980 constitutional reforms by Augusto Pinochet, and the 1989 and 2005 constitutional reforms by various political parties, have shaped the current Chilean electoral and multi-party system. Coalition governance may serve as a means of maintaining the democratic health of the nation: a potential antidote to the type of repression, such as that experienced during the non-democratic period.

Until 1973, the state of democracy in Chile had long received a clean bill of health. The political landscape in the lead-up to the presidential election of 1970 was particularly diverse, in part, due to the use of multi-member districts in congressional elections. The threshold for individual members to get elected in densely populated districts was as low as 6%. (Siavelis, 2003-2010, 434). Relative to the first past the post electoral system, smaller parties had significantly more incentive to run because they had a greater chance to win a seat.

Given this low threshold and more than a dozen parties vying for power, forming coalitions became an instrumental part of not only gaining power, but doing so, with a stronger chance of gaining a majority. Coalition governments within this diverse democratic landscape have allowed smaller parties the opportunity to participate in governing the nation.

However, of the three strongest political organizations of the 1970 presidential election, only Popular Unity, led by Dr. Allende, was a coalition. Comprised of the Socialist Party, Social Democratic Party, Radical Party, Communist Party, and MAPU (Movement of Unified Popular Action), they ran on a platform that included nationalizing key industries, reducing government salaries and benefits, in favour of subsidized secondary education, books, and a half-litre of daily milk for Chilean children that needed it most. The Popular Unity coalition won the presidential election by a razor-thin plurality, in large part, due to vote-splitting in a very tight three-way race.

In order to become the first democratically elected socialist president of Latin America, Allende had to be confirmed by a majority in Congress, which was then composed of 50 senators and 150 deputies. (ACE Electoral Knowledge Network, 2010) Such a process placed the Christian Democrats, who had opted not to forge a coalition with Popular Unity in the campaign, in the role of king-maker. They obliged the requisite number of votes and would play a crucial role in determining the fate of much of the new government’s agenda.

In all, six different parties played a direct role in forming or maintaining the new government. In the sense that a healthy democracy can be defined as an open forum where ideas can be debated, without fear of recrimination, by variety of groups represented in government, the state of democracy in Chile was, indeed, in good shape.

Another indicator of the extent of Chile’s democratic health, at this time, manifested itself through an increase in the number of registered voters: from 2,915,121 in the presidential election of 1964, to 3,539,747 in 1970, and up to 4,509,559 in the legislative elections of 1973. One cause of increase can be traced to voter suffrage reform. Whereas, voting was restricted to literate men and women over twenty-one from 1949 to 1969, it had progressed, by 1970, to include all men and women over the age of eighteen. (Economist, 2008)

Though Dr. Allende, leader of both the Popular Unity coalition and the Socialist Party, favoured a societal shift to socialism, his preferred means for doing so lay within the established system, that is, his road to socialism was democratic, which put him at odds with the revolutionary wing of his party that favoured a more immediate and violent approach.

The Communist Party, compared to these socialists, were relatively moderate, also preferring the democratic route (Economist, 2008). The Radical and Social Democratic parties, too, sought societal transformation but mainly by means of greater state-led development. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the National Party favoured a less activist government, closer relations with the United States and neoliberal economic policies.

The Christian Democrats, comprising the centre of Chilean politics, had a long history of participation in government, and under Eduardo Frei, president from 1964 to 1970, had undertaken state-led reform in the agrarian sector and made in-roads toward nationalizing industries. When the party could not focus its allegiance to either the Popular Unity coalition or the National Party of the right, its left and right wings split to either side of the political spectrum, and the country polarized. Stability and compromise became increasingly unlikely.

By mid-1973, inflation reached 300%. The National Party and a growing number of Christian Democrats were resistant to the Allende program. They manifested their opposition by rejecting all the government’s proposed legislation. In concert with opposition parties, street violence, strikes by bus owners, truck owners and the El Teniente copper miners attempted to weaken the economy. Privileged classes and professional groups grew more critical and outspoken of the government. Tension and uncertainty built steadily, as the nation polarized further. Since the Chilean military, much of whose leadership had trained in the United States, and the right-wing paramilitary group Fatherland and Liberty, had the backing of the CIA and the anti-communist Nixon administration, many believed that a violent end to the Chilean road to socialism was a distinct possibility. (Guzman, 1998)

On September 11, 1973, Allende, surrounded by thirty-seven bodyguards attempted to defend the presidential palace from attack by the Chilean armed forces, but were overmatched by the co-ordinated bombing attack from above and the tank fire on the ground. Days prior to his final day as president, Allende had received assurances from top-ranking generals that the military would support the legitimate government. But General Pincochet could not be located by the government on the day of the attack.

Though Allende had worked within constitutional limits for each measure, including the nationalization of numerous medium and large-scale industries, his opposition was too great. He gave a final speech to the nation, in which he condemned the perpetrators of violence and the seditious behaviour of the opposition. With the death of Allende, so went democracy, socialism and the brief life of his Popular Unity government. A state of emergency was declared that gave the military junta “draconian” powers. The political parties of the fallen government were banned. Other political parties were “suspended” (Economist, 2008). Thousands of Allende supporters were killed, jailed, or exiled. Many disappeared. Democracy had fallen unconscious in Chile and would not awake for another fifteen years.

In 1980, Pinochet, having won a plebiscite of questionable repute on amending the constitution, extended his powers and those of the military; the country required the stability only an authoritarian government could ensure. To privileged Chileans, Pinochet included, it was the fractious nature of the country’s multi-party system that allowed for the electoral victory of Salvador Allende. With a military government at the helm, and with a more stable relationship to outside markets, the economy could grow and the Marxist threat be eliminated, or so the logic went. In the period of 1973 to 1980, democracy was an official non-reality. What had been the longest running democracy in Latin America morphed into a police state.

The drastic constitutional amendments would mark a historical point upon which the democratic forces of the nation would long be limited. His constitutional reform of 1980, favourable to the military and its allies, made future reform complicated. He abolished multi-member magnitude districts, which had, up to and including 1973, put a low threshold for smaller parties to get elected. He introduced a distinctive double member magnitude system, in which the first-place party required a super-majority, that is, twice as many votes as the second-place party, in order to win both seats. This new electoral system could have the effect of awarding an equal number of seats to parties with fewer votes.

The introduction of unelected senators, most of whom were retired military generals and former-ministers in Pinochet’s cabinet, would combine with the new electoral system to pose a significant obstacle to the anti-Pinochet parties seeking legislative majorities in the future.

By 1988, inflation had decreased; foreign-investment had increased, in part, due to privatization of numerous medium and large-scale businesses. Opposition voices had been suppressed. With the objectives of maintaining the nation’s stability by further entrenching its own grip on power, the Pinochet government put forth a second plebiscite, which gave Chileans the choice of an additional eight years of authoritarian government, or a return to democratic government and the first presidential election since 1970.

Although a plebiscite is a democratic device, two plebiscites in fifteen years, and a handful of free university and union elections, under Pinochet, is a far cry from the democratic institutionalization that existed under Allende and other democratically elected Chilean presidents. Ironically for the authoritarian leader, the result of the nation’s verdict would mark a historic point upon which the reconstitution of democratic health could begin. Pinochet had misjudged the democratic will of the nation, and while the plebiscite could be said to have functioned as a democratic way of evaluating his leadership, 55% of Chilean voters opted for a return to true democracy. The nation would first have to surpass a period of “bitter transition” and “partial democracy” (77, 87, Burbach). Chile’s democratic forces could not yet undo Pinochet’s far-reaching 1980 reforms.

With the exception of the Communist Party, all the major political parties of the last democratic period, including the Socialist Party, Social Democratic Party, Christian Democrats and the pro-Pinochet National Party resurfaced to participate in the constitutional reforms of 1989. The number of elected senators was increased from twenty-four to thirty-eight, thereby reducing the effect of the twelve unelected senators introduced under Pinochet. The legal process of effecting constitutional change was simplified and the power of the military reduced (Economist, 2008).

Upon first practice in 1990, the 1980 Pinochet-led electoral reform, though tempered in 1989, ensured that members of the right-wing coalition led by the National Party could count on winning a seat in most districts. The more popular centre-left Concertación coalition would split the seats with the National Party, who would hold a majority in Congress as a result of the unelected senators, even though the latter garnered a lesser portion of the vote. The Concertación coalition won the presidency, but not the balance of power in Congress. Two autonomous electoral organisms TRICEL, the supreme electoral justice court, and SERVEL, the supervisory body that oversees organizing and controlling all electoral acts, ensured the legitimacy of the electoral results (ACE Electoral Knowledge Network, 2010).

In 2005, the 1980 reforms were further tempered. The new constitutional amendments now allow more proportionate representation in Congress, that is, because unelected senators were banished, an electoral majority translates to a majority of representatives in government. Presidential terms were reduced from six to four years. The power of the presidency was decreased in relation to that of the Chamber of Deputies, while the governmental role of the military was reduced to that of an advisory body, unable to convene without the express consent of the president (Economist, 2008).

Chile has rebounded admirably since the dark period, in which authoritarian dominance drove democratic forces in Chile underground or overseas. Constitutional changes and historic events that have taken place since 1970, have defined the parameters, in which Chileans have reclaimed their democracy. While the governmental intolerance of the Pinochet-era can be considered a drastic reaction to the electoral permissiveness and fractionalization of the brief Allende period, constitutional changes in the post-Pinochet era can be seen to have laid a middle ground, where political battles are won and lost at the centre, rather than at the left or right end of the political spectrum.

Five successive coalition governments have resulted since 1990, which can, to an extent, be attributable to the double-member magnitude system, in which mainly first and second place parties, or coalitions, win almost all of the seats. Though Pinochet introduced this system in order to maintain the balance of power for his allies, it has, in combination with the eradication of unelected senators, had the opposite effect. Not until 2010, was a centre-right coalition able to wrest power away from the centre-left. Democratic progress in gender equality was evident through the election of Chile’s first female president, Michelle Bachelete, in 2006, but only time will tell if the lessons learned through the experience of democratic socialism and authoritarianism have made Chile’s institutions and democratic forces resistant to future abuse to the democratic health of the nation.

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