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13/01/2014 | Chile: The unrecognized role model of Latin America

Luis Fleischman

In a run- off election on December 15thpresidential candidate Michelle Bachelet, who was Chile’s president from 2006 to 2010, was again voted into office.


The victory was overwhelming as Bachelet took more than 60% of the vote against her opponent Evelyn Mathei of the conservative Independent Democratic Union party, who is also a childhood friend of Bachelet.

Bachelet ran on a platform that responded directly to the student protests and other strikes that the country experienced in the last several years. Indeed, popular protests that brought tens of thousands of protestors to the streets demanded lowers costs for higher education along with improvement in the quality of education. These demonstrations caught fire as they expanded to other social sectors. In a remote area of Chilean Patagonia, protestors blocked roads demanding cheaper petrol. Likewise, there were demonstrations in opposition to a new fishing law. Previously there were strikes by copper miners demanding a fairer share of the production profits. Port workers also participated in strikes, demanding better working conditions.  There were also hunger strikes by imprisoned indigenous activists. Environmentalists protested a hydroelectric project. There were also protests over high levels of inequality despite the considerable reduction of poverty Chile experienced in the last quarter of a century.

In her victory speech, Bachelet vowed to improve education and work for equality. During the campaign Bachelet promised to provide free tuition for higher education, re-write the constitution in order to abolish parts of the 1980 Constitution drafted by the Pinochet government.  As part of her agenda, she said she would reform the tax code in order to collect an additional 8 billion dollars to be able to afford the huge expenses for her promised changes. These expenses include higher welfare benefits and free higher education, something that is likely to generate problems and public controversy.

A constitutional reform in Latin America usually has a bad connotation given the fact that those countries that followed the Venezuelan model used this procedure as a means to strengthen the executive power, which then led to more arbitrariness on the part of these governments. However, Bachelet was never very specific about the kind of constitutional reform she proposed since she, herself, was uncertain what she intended. Curiously, a few days before the run- off election, Bachelet went to the streets and asked the people to provide ideas for a new constitution.

The Chilean Constitution of 1980 has been gradually reformed over the course of 20 years of democratic governance.  Under that constitution nine unelected senators were designated by the military creating a de-facto right-leaning majority in the Senate. This was the case regardless of the majorities that the center-left coalition won via the ballot. According to the constitution, the military enjoyed a powerful and independent status and former dictator Augusto Pinochet remained as head of the army until 1998, and enjoyed the status of Senator for life until 2002.  Moreover, the electoral system in Chile has been binomial, which is a copy of the system introduced by General Wojciech Jaruzelsky, not without coincidence also in 1980.  That system defines parliamentary elections by dividing the seats according to districts in both chambers of Congress. Each district elects two representatives or Senators. Each party or coalition of parties can include up to two candidates per district. Those political coalitions or parties that obtained the two largest majorities are entitled to one representative or Senator each. But for one party or coalition to be entitled to two representatives or Senators, that party needs to have at least twice the number of votes than the second largest party or coalition.

This system creates a perpetual tie that undermines the ability of the government to carry out reforms.

The system forces Chile’s politicians into two big coalitions, under representing winning coalitions (unless they reach the practically impossible 66.7% of the vote) and over representing the second largest coalition which in Chile’s case is made up of the conservative and the center-right.

In 2005, the governing coalition was able to achieve a majority to approve a package of 58 constitutional amendments. Those amendments eliminated the whole body of unelected and for life Senators and were able to finally impose civilian control of the military. However, the binomial electoral system was not modified because the right-wing parties, which are overrepresented thanks to this system, effectively blocked it.

If Bachelet intends to reform the binomial system and change it to a more fair system of representation, it deserves utmost support. This system is obviously bad. Today it over represents the right; tomorrow it may well over represent the left.

I see no reason to worry about a radical constitutional reform in Chile or its deterioration into a Bolivarian or Kirchnerian model.

There is no reason not to have confidence in Chile because the country has been an example of tolerance that despite political divisions, the democracy that was reborn in 1990 has prevailed under steady economic growth. Protests and strikes were not attributed to foreign or media conspiracies as in neighboring Argentina but were faced straight on (even the Brazilian government reacted to its protests with the same seriousness and consideration given by the Chilean government).

Furthermore, Bachelet and Mathei competed against each other. They both were childhood friends because their fathers were both generals in the air force.  Bachelet’s father was against the coup while Mathei’s father remained loyal to Pinochet. Bachelet’s father was murdered by the Pinochet regime. Still Bachelet’s campaign did not raise any personal dimension and did not imply any message of anger or revenge.

The Chilean model, despite the structural deficiencies and the problematic legacy of the Pinochet constitution demonstrates tremendous commitment to democracy and leadership responsibility. More than anything, Chile has displayed a remarkable political culture that despite everything has evolved with little or no violence. Chile was patient enough to wait until 2005 (15 years) to make significant constitutional reforms. Likewise, when right wing parties successfully resisted the change in the binomial system, the frustration was not expressed through physical or verbal violence. In that sense Chile is a model of a political culture that needs to be replicated.

Argentina’s president, Cristina Kirchner, preferred to emulate the Andean angry revolutionaries rather than look to its immediate neighbor to the West.  Uruguay, whose president represents a social democracy, stated, “there should be many presidents like Hugo Chavez to remind us of the world’s poor,”

However, the Chilean government has contributed to the isolation of its exemplary political culture.

Bachelet in her first presidential tenure praised Chavez for his contribution to regional integration while remaining mute on his violations of human rights.  Despite the fact that in private she criticized Chavez and Kirchner she accepted the central role its left-wing leaders were willing to deliver. . Bachelet also gave public and private praise to   the government of Evo Morales while ignoring its authoritarian patterns.

In addition, Bachelet herself, like many of her colleagues on the left, has behaved irresponsibly by making populist promises that will be hard to fulfill. Likewise, Bachelet looked the other way as one of her advisors, a senator of Palestinian Christian origins, accused Israeli tourists of “mapping out the Southern Chile region” and accused the Chilean government of surrendering to American and Israeli pressure. This type of discourse is very common in the Venezuelan official media but if it is acceptable in the eyes of Bachelet, it is not a positive sign

Furthermore, Bachelet’s successor and soon to be her predecessor, the conservative Sebastian Pinera, followed this policy of submission, acceptance and silence in the face of democracy deterioration in the continent.  It was under Pinera that Chile became one of the sponsors, along with Venezuela and Cuba, of the senseless Colombia-FARC negotiations.

Chile needs to be an example, a light to the rest of Latin American nations. Instead, it is likely to become irrelevant in the regional context due to its imperative desire to be part of an integrated region. Unfortunately, Chile is not alone in this way of thinking as countries like Brazil and even Colombia refrain from challenging the decline of democratic practices in countries like Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia in pursuit of a more unified Latin America.

Center for Security Policy (Estados Unidos)


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