Chile: Congress Approves Reform of Pinochet-Era Electoral Laws

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SANTIAGO, Chile – Nearly eight months after Chilean President Michelle Bachelet sent to Congress an electoral reform bill that would “strengthen democracy” and overturn a Pinochet-era version of that law, lawmakers finally approved the measure that aims to ensure greater representation.

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After a quarter-century of free elections and five democratically-elected governments, the center-left New Majority government of President Michelle Bachelet has achieved one of its goals set when she assumed the presidency in March of 2014 by approving the electoral reform law just days before legislative recess begins on January 31st.

“After decades of waiting, we have taken a significant step in deepening and strengthening our democracy. From now on, our Congress can be an expression of the social, political and cultural diversity of our country. Never again will 30 percent equal 60 percent as they it did under the unacceptable distortions caused by the binomial system,” said the Secretary General (government spokesman) Álvaro Elizalde.

A remnant of the Pinochet military dictatorship (1973-1990), the binomial voting system strengthens the two powerful blocs of the institutionalized left (Concertation, now the New Majority) and right (Alliance) and diminishes the potential of small parties. This sort of system is currently used nowhere else in the world.

At its inception in 1989, Pinochet, knowing that the right wing that he represented for so long would suffer in the upcoming free elections, drafted the Chilean version of the system in order to run damage control for the conservatives.

To outline how the binomial system works, Ivan Vargas of the Santiago Times explains: “In Chile’s congressional elections, two seats are available in a voting area. Candidates most often run in pairs from the same electoral coalition, and two candidates from the same coalition can only win both seats if their coalition received at least twice as many total votes as the competing one.”

“This means,” Vargas writes, “a candidate who may actually be third place in popular votes is often elected over the second place candidate. The system ensures that a member of each of the two largest political coalitions (the Alliance for Chile and the New Majority) generally win a seat each in a voting district. Historically, the Alliance gains around half of the seats in Congress while winning closer to 40 percent of the popular vote.”

Indeed, the smaller parties are marginalized in Chile and the latest election demonstrated how the binomial system did this. In the election held in November of 2014, only 1 out of 20 available Senate (upper house) seats was won by an Independent. No individual that does not represent the New Majority or the Alliance won a seat while the same rang true for the Chamber of Deputies (lower house); only 4 out of 120 Independents won a seat.

Currently (for the 2014-2018 Congressional term), the binomial system led to the New Majority controlling 56% of the Chamber of Deputies while the Alliance controls 41%, leaving just over 3% of the Chamber filled by politicians who do not belong to the two dominant groups. In the Senate, the New Majority controls 55% of the seats while the Alliance for Chile controls 42%, which leaves, once again, just 3% of the representation to non-bloc Senators.

Bachelet, 62, who served as President from 2006 to 2010 and left office with very high approval ratings but was constitutionally barred from re-election, called the binomial voting system “a thorn in the heart of our democracy.” As a result, the issue was finally brought to the forefront with the support of the left-wing parties, as well as those in the center.

“This is a system that owes its existence to the dictatorship, and a system that perpetuates political exclusion in Chile,” Bachelet said shortly after taking office about the electoral system in Chile. “This is certainly not the way we want to ensure the political and social stability of our country.”

“This binomial system,” Bachelet continued, “should be reformed not only because of the wound that its origins represent, but also because it condemns Chilean politics and society as a consequence to a permanent deadlock. A basic principle of democracy, which is that the majority dictates what should happen, is denied by this system.”

In addition to abrogating the binomial voting system, the reform bill would also increase the number of legislators; 12 more Senators would be added to the current 38 while the 120-seat Chamber of Deputies would receive 35 more seats, increasing it to 155. This would be coupled with the redrawing of electoral districts to better reflect the changed demographics of the nation rather than the sharp socioeconomic lines that demarcate the current districts.

In addition, the reform bill seeks a more gender-equal representation in both houses of Congress. This would be accomplished by establishing a law that limits one gender to controlling no more than 60% of the Senate or the Chamber of Deputies.

Factions of the right wing, however, already spoke out against the reform back in March of last year. Andrés Chadwick of the Independent Democratic Union and former Interior Minister under President Sebastián Piñera, said it will “make the country difficult to govern,” as well as “distribute an excess of the workload” and “increase costs.”

Now, many of the Alliance figures claim that the reform is tailored to the left, but offered no evidence of this except for the fact that their alliance would lose votes due to actual proportional representation.

The law still has to be approved after being thoroughly reviewed by the Constitutional Tribunal but no challenges by the body are expected to be raised. If it is passed into law after the review, it will take effect in the 2017 legislative elections.

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