The Political Constitution of 1925 not only had a completely anti-democratic origin – as we saw in Part I – but also had an extremely authoritarian-presidential character. In contrast to the de facto political system existing between 1891 and 1925 – which was not based on the Constitution of 1833, but on a “reinterpretation” of it by the victors of a civil war – it was characterised by extreme parliamentarism.
Of the many provisions that granted the President of the Republic extraordinary powers, the most relevant was undoubtedly the fact that he became a co-legislator with a power that virtually prevented Congress from passing laws or constitutional reforms of its own initiative. This, through a veto power that the two chambers could only overcome if they insisted by more than two thirds on their proposed law or constitutional reform. In addition, in the latter case, the president was given the possibility of resorting to a plebiscite.
All this led two personalities – one national and the other international – who were not in the political heat of the moment to be strongly critical of the anti-democratic nature of the text. I am referring to the illustrious German jurist Hans Kelsen, who in 1926 expressed harsh criticism. And the then senator of the National Phalange, Eduardo Frei, who did something similar in a book written in 1949.
Kelsen pointed out that “the new Chilean Constitution is a product of that anti-parliamentary movement that is also spreading in Europe today (…) the Constitution includes a series of provisions that lead from there to very close to the borders of that form that today it is customary to call a dictatorship. This can be seen especially in the legislative field (…) the legislative process is regulated in a way that ensures the President a decisive influence. Indeed, the role of the President is not limited simply to the enactment of laws. The Constitution reserves to him the right to approve Parliament’s bills (Art. 52). It is true that a refusal to give this approval has only the effect of a suspensive veto. However, against the will of the President, Parliament can only impose its legislative intent if it perseveres in its determination with a two-thirds majority in both Houses. In the case of constitutional reform, however, the President can appeal to the people against this qualified majority and call for a referendum (Art. 109). In practice, this means that a law cannot be passed against the will of the President.
However, the decisive deviation from the parliamentary principle can be seen in the fact that the Constitution does not start from a principle which is even characteristic of constitutional monarchies, namely that – apart from the exceptions expressly stated in the Constitution – general rules can only originate in the form of laws, i.e., as decisions of the representatives of the people” (Renato Cristi and Pablo Ruiz-Tagle, The Republic in Chile. Teoría y Práctica del constitucionalismo republicano; Lom, 2006; pp.121-2).
In turn, Frei wrote that with the 1925 Constitution we went from parliamentarism “to an Executive as strong as perhaps no other exists, with such a sum of powers, to which later laws have added others”, that “it became a presidential regime of disproportionate concentration of powers and influences”, such that “the danger of the system lies in its almost organic tendency towards the legal dictatorship of the President and easily allows him to be tempted to abuse his powers. A supreme dispenser of benefits and honours, he can have an inordinate influence on the life of the country and, by the same token, break down all opposition or seek indirect but effective means of silencing it” (Historia de los partidos políticos chilenos; Edit. del Pacífico, 1949; pp. 201-3).
Another fundamental anti-democratic factor – which, although not in the text, accompanied the Constitution from its inception – was the voting system that distorted the popular will expressed in elections, particularly in the case of parliamentary elections. I am referring to the fact that the vote – in continuation of the previous electoral system – was cast by means of ballots prepared by each political party in such a way that the proxies at each polling station could identify during the counting of votes whether those who had previously sold their will in favour of their party’s candidate had fulfilled their commitment.
This system made it very common for votes to be bought and sold from popular urban contingents that were not politically aware. On the other hand, this system was also used by the owners of estates to hand over their ready-made votes to the tenants of their estates, taking them in groups to exercise their right to vote for the employer’s candidate. In this case it was not a mercantile operation, but a manifestation of the usual vassalage existing between landowners and peasants, which was normally “repaid” with some kind of subsequent feast given to them by the boss.
But remarkably, given the moralising rhetoric that the army officers used in their political interventions in 1924 and 1925, Alessandri felt obliged to put an end to this system, establishing the single cédula by means of Decree-Law No. 542 of 23 September 1925. However, an event occurred that would turn everything around. This was that in the presidential elections of October of that year, all the traditional political parties (from conservative to democratic) agreed to support an establishment candidate, the liberal democratic Emiliano Figueroa Larraín. Running against him was the physician José Santos Salas, supported by the Communist Party and small precursor groups of the Socialist Party.
Surprisingly, the candidate representing the seemingly miniscule “extreme left” won 28.3% of the vote (74,091), against 71.1% (186,187) for Figueroa; that is, almost a third of the vote. “And as if that were not enough, the third had been given to him by the big cities, especially Santiago. Figueroa defeated Salas in urban Santiago by less than 1,000 votes -total voters 35,000- and the doctor won in important popular neighbourhoods, e.g., Quinta Normal (5th commune), Matadero (10th), the sector south of the Mapocho (4th), etc.” (Gonzalo Vial, Historia de Chile, Volume IV: La dictadura de Ibáñez (1925-1931); Edit. Fundación, 1996; p. 71).
This brought “panic” to the “parties of order” (Conservative, Liberal, Liberal Democratic and Radical) which put strong pressure on the provisional government (of Luis Barros Borgoño, who had succeeded Alessandri after he resigned due to the “indiscipline” of his Minister of War, Carlos Ibáñez) to return to the party voting system, which they achieved with Decree-Law No. 710 of 6 November that reintroduced it. In addition, this decree included a highly complex system of electoral pacts designed to undemocratically benefit the most powerful parties, by differentially multiplying the votes of the candidates placed higher on the list, when it came to assigning which of each of them was elected, if they did not receive more votes than the “distribution figure” (since a proportional system was established); or if they did not reach this figure with the “surplus” votes of those of the same party on the list, who had achieved it.
This ingenious system of pacts was indeed so complex that it led the political scientist Federico Gil (author of the book El sistema político de Chile; Edit. Andrés Bello, 1969) to point out – probably in an unpublished form – that “the functioning of the system (of pacts) prior to the 1961 elections – which was when the system was ended – was so complex that it defies all attempts at explanation” (p. 236). In any case, it is an excellent illustration of the remarkable creativity of the Chilean right wing in devising formulas that distort the will of the people.
Creativity that we have seen subsequently with the binominal electoral system and now with the two-thirds supermajority quorum to prevent an effectively democratic Constitution.
But it also illustrates the great factual subordination that – with the exception of the 60s and 70s – the centre-left has had with the right. Thus, not only did the left-wing parties or groups not react at all to this involution, but until the 1950s they never even raised in their programmes the introduction of the single ballot paper, which was only obtained in 1958. And what about the last 30 years in which the centre-left legitimised, consolidated and “perfected” the neo-liberal model imposed by the dictatorship. And now, when they meekly accepted the supermajority quorum of two thirds in the Convention and when they want to extend the validity of the Congress of the old Constitution (where the right and the former Concertación have two thirds!) so that they can legislatively concretise the new Constitution…