Has democracy finally arrived in Chile?

17.01.2015 - Tony Robinson

This post is also available in: Spanish, Italian

Has democracy finally arrived in Chile?
Chilean Congress building in Valparaiso. (Image by Oscar Oyarzo on wikimedia commons)

Augusto Pinochet’s parting gift to Chilean politics as he ended his military dictatorship was a bizarre system of elections that divided the country into areas each with two seats in the House of Deputies. The only way to ensure election was to be in one of the two biggest political alliances in the constituency. This essentially ensured that Right-wing political parties that supported Pinochet could maintain 50% of the House even when their share of the vote was significantly lower. All parties outside of the two major blocks were effectively barred from power.

The Humanist Party, instrumental in forcing Pinochet to give up power back in the 80s, has fought ever since the first post-Pinochet government to end this electoral system that can only be found in this South American country of 18 million inhabitants packed between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains.

Tomas Hirsch is a member of the National Coordination Team of the Chilean HP and former Presidential Candidate for the Left coalition “Podemos”. We caught up with him to ask him a few questions about this change of system. Is there really a fundamental change?  Has democracy finally arrived in Chile?


Pressenza: It has been announced in Chile that the government has voted to end the current binominal electoral system; a system which has been unable to give participation in the Chilean government to the vast majority of the population that hasn’t wanted to vote for either of the two main political blocks. Is it really true? Is the old system gone or are there more steps to take?

Thomas Hirsch: Effectively, a few days ago the legislative process through which an end was brought to the binominal electoral system created by the Pinochet dictatorship was completed. This perverse and profoundly anti-democratic system guaranteed that the right-wing in Chile could permanently maintain 50% of the seats in both chambers of government by obtaining 33% of the votes or less. In turn and ever since the end of the dictatorship, it has impeded the election of parliamentarians that didn’t belong to the two blocks that shared power.

Unfortunately, once again things have been done “Chilean style”. The electoral system has changed but in such a way that the same political conglomerates will definitely continue to benefit. In other words, we are in front of a change of name, celebrated with great fanfare by the government, but which doesn’t substantially change the way in which power will be shared in future.


PZ: How will the system look like if it isn’t the binominal system? When will be the first elections under the new system?

TH: The adopted system is something more proportional than the previous one but it maintains a high barrier in order to be elected something which virtually leaves out independent candidates or candidates from parties that don’t form pacts with others, making electoral alliances. It obliges electoral agreements always under the pretext of seeking “democratic stability”. (What exactly is that?)

So, new political forces, social organisations, ethnicities, ecologists, regional groups and so on will continue to be excluded from parliament but now the System will say that “they had the chance to be elected and they didn’t manage it.” Certainly they will not explain that under the new Law the possibility of election is almost zero.

The only way in which the Left and alternative sectors will be able to have deputies elected will be by creating very broad electoral alliances and even in this case they will tend to be under-represented.

The first election under the new system will be at the end of 2017 when the entire chamber of deputies will be renewed and half the Senate.


PZ: What is the percentage that an electoral alliance should reach in order to get elected deputies?

TH: With the new system it’s very difficult to reply to this question as it varies according to the number of coalitions that participate and it also varies from district to district as there are variable numbers of deputies from two to seven.

According to the simulations that the Moebius Foundation made, a left-wing coalition, if it would gather together all the forces outside the “power duopoly” could reach a maximum of 9 deputies which would be 6% of the total, but it also depends on how voting intentions will change under the changed electoral system.

So, really… impossible to know.


PZ: What impact will this have on the several small political parties among which the Humanist Party figures?

TH: As I said before, the new law will have several effects:

  1. If you want to have deputies elected, you will have to reach electoral agreements between several parties that are currently excluded from parliament.
  2. There will be a strong tendency from the media to disqualify parties excluded from parliament arguing that “now there is no binominal law and they still won’t be elected.”
  3. Power will tend to remain concentrated in the two coalitions. According to our studies and simulations it has been seen that in the worst of cases for them they will remain with 94% of the seats instead of 100% currently.


PZ: On social media there is joy on one hand by some but also doubts on the part of others, above all because of the proposal to increase the number of seats in the chambers of Government, something that will mean greater costs for the public. How do you see this issue?

TH: I think that the joy is basically from the parties currently in government that have managed to present the change as profound democratisation without it being so. Those who receive the news and who don’t understand the complicated mathematical mechanism behind the new law are also happy, believing that the problem has been resolved with the change of name.

Regarding the doubts of others about the increased costs to the public, I think they’re totally secondary. Besides the exorbitant profits extracted by the financial system, the loss of billions of dollars annually due to the non-renationalisation of the copper industry, and the out-of-control corruption, the increase in costs that this Law means is insignificant. In reality it is the classical anti-political propaganda that tries to make you believe that “a lot is spent on politics” in order to divert attention from what is essential.

Categories: Interviews, Politics, South America
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