Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

CHILE: Historic Reforms Complete Transition to Democracy

Gustavo González

SANTIAGO, Jul 14 2005 (IPS) - Chilean President Ricardo Lagos described constitutional reforms approved by Congress as the final step in the country’s lengthy transition to democracy.

The amendments, passed by the Senate late Wednesday, will eliminate the last vestiges of authoritarian rule left behind by the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).

The reforms will shorten the presidential term from six to four years and eliminate the posts of appointed senators, who mainly represent the military, while restoring the president’s power to remove senior armed forces commanders.

“I would like to say that today is a very important day for Chile,” Lagos said in a statement from Australia, where he is on an official visit. “Fifteen years ago Chile returned to democracy and now we can say that the transition is complete.”

“Now we have a constitution in keeping with (the country’s) historical tradition,” added the president, who will sign the reforms into law after both houses of Congress hold a symbolic vote to enact them on Aug. 16.

Interior Minister Francisco Vidal said the only pending reform to complete the democratisation of the political system is the modification of the rules that govern legislative elections and the creation of mechanisms to guarantee proportional representation in Congress.

The amendments, which had already been approved by the lower house of Congress, will enter into effect on Mar. 11, 2006, when the new president elected on Dec. 11 takes office.

The poll favourite for the presidential elections is the governing centre-left coalition’s candidate Michelle Bachelet of Lagos’ Socialist Party.

The amendments will reform the constitution that was rewritten under Pinochet and approved in a controversial 1980 referendum.

The constitution granted strong powers to the military, which under Pinochet, who was named army chief in August 1973, overthrew Socialist President Salvador Allende a month later, in September.

But in a 1988 plebiscite on the continuation of military rule, Pinochet was defeated by a broad political and social coalition calling for the restoration of democracy: the “Concertación de Partidos por el No”, an alliance of parties made up of christian democrats, social democrats, socialists, environmentalists and others.

The coalition gave rise in the 1989 presidential elections to the centre-left “Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia”, which has governed this South American country since March 1990.

But as army chief until March 1998, Pinochet continued to wield strong influence over Chilean politics.

In addition, an amnesty law decreed by the former dictator in 1978 stood in the way of legal action against those responsible for the human rights violations committed by the de facto regime, which murdered or forcibly disappeared some 3,000 people, and tortured tens of thousands.

The authoritarian legacy of military rule was also kept alive by institutions like the National Security Council, the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court, which until the mid-1990s were made up of judges designated by Pinochet.

In the legislature, popular representation was distorted in the Senate, which is comprised of 38 elected lawmakers as well as eight appointed senators. Four of these are named by the National Security Council, to represent the army, the navy, the air force and the national Carabineros police, which is also a branch of the armed forces.

The other four designated senators represent former university deans, cabinet ministers, comptroller-generals and Supreme Court magistrates. In addition, ex-presidents are entitled to become senators-for-life.

On Mar. 11, 1998, the day after he stepped down as army chief, Pinochet became the first lifelong senator. He resigned from that post in March 2000, on his return from London, where he had been held under house arrest since October 1998 on the basis of an arrest warrant issued by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón.

For years, the right-wing opposition alliance blocked any attempt to complete the transition to democracy.

But 15 years after the return to democracy an agreement was finally reached between the ruling coalition – made up of the Christian Democratic, Socialist, For Democracy and Radical Social Democratic parties – and the right-wing alliance comprised of the Independent Democratic Union and the National Renovation Party.

The reforms will eliminate the posts of appointed and lifelong senators and give the president the power to fire military commanders without the approval of the National Security Council, which will become merely an advisory body to the government on defence questions.

Still to be undertaken is the modification of the “binomial” electoral system put in place by the Pinochet regime, under which two deputies and two senators are elected for each electoral district and constituency.

The system basically promotes the existence of two large coalitions, while marginalising smaller leftist forces like the communist party, and has allowed the two right-wing parties to maintain a virtual tie with the ruling coalition in both houses of Congress.

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