Chile reforms Pinochet’s voting system

Parliament passes historic changes aimed at improving representation for minority parties

Lawmakers celebrate the passing of the reform bill.
Lawmakers celebrate the passing of the reform bill.R. GARRIDO (REUTERS)

Twenty-five years after the end of the dictatorship, and five democratic governments later, the Chilean parliament overhauled its entire voting system on Tuesday when it approved legislation to replace the binomial system introduced by Augusto Pinochet. 

The Michelle Bachelet administration, which had proposed the reform, used its majority to push through the historic changes before January 31, when Congress is scheduled to recess.

“After waiting for decades, we have taken a substantial step forward in strengthening our democracy. From now on, Congress will represent the social, political, and cultural diversity of the country. Thirty percent will never equal 60 percent ever again, which happened under the unacceptable distortions of the binomial system,” said Álvaro Elizalde, the spokesman for the Bachelet administration.

The reforms have established fixed gender quotas of 60-40 for candidates

The old voting structure was first used in the 1989 elections – Chile’s first democratic legislative polls after the 1973 military coup d’état. The system promoted political stability during the transition by favoring the two major coalitions, the right-wing Alianza and the center-left Concertación.

In practice, however, this list-based, rather than candidate-based, arrangement led to unusual situations. Since each electoral district only received two deputies and only two senators could represent each constituency, the contender with the most votes did not always win. Instead, the member at the top of each of the two main coalitions’ list won the office. Popular third-party leaders would be left out even if they reached second place, unless their entire list pulled in enough votes to come in second as well.

Michelle Bachelet won a second term in office partly because of her promise to reform Chile's old voting laws.
Michelle Bachelet won a second term in office partly because of her promise to reform Chile's old voting laws.XIMENA NAVARRO (EFE)

Within the binomial system, minority groups had few possibilities to gain representation in parliament. Since the end of the dictatorship, the Communist Party was able to win only three seats in Congress in 2009 thanks to several instrumental agreements with Concertación.

Over the years, minority groups began to call for the removal of the binomial system and their demands slowly became a platform issue for the center-left. But it still took decades for the government and parliament to make a political decision leading to veritable change. At times, it was simply more convenient for them to maintain the status quo.

The 2011 student protests, however, put the voting system at the center of the political debate, and its amendment became one of the key issues in the campaign to create a more democratic voting structure. When Bachelet returned to Chile in 2013 to head her second presidential campaign, she included the proposal in her platform, and her New Majority coalition, which includes Social Democrats as well as Communists, stood to attention.

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The new system will allow for a broader, more proportional representation of the electorate. It will go into effect starting with the 2017 congressional elections, and establish different quotas for certain districts and constituencies, thus breaking the tie between the country’s two largest parties.

It will also raise the number of deputies from 120 to 155, while senatorial seats will go up to 50 from the current 38. The goal is to give broader representation to locations with larger populations. The measure completely redesigns Chile’s electoral map, an incentive that may encourage the growth of new political parties. The law also calls for gender quotas of 60-40 for candidates.

The Constitutional Court is now due to review the law before it is enacted. The right has called on the court to carefully examine the measure, which it considers tailor-made to suit the left and a defeat for Chile as a nation.

Translation: Dyane Jean François

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