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SANTIAGO, Jan 30 2012 (IPS) - Chile’s political system is “exhausted” and urgently needs reform to truly represent its citizens, consolidate democracy and ensure governability, say experts consulted by IPS.
The current system was designed in 1980, under the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet who died in 2006, and is perpetuated by the “leyes de amarre”, or “laws keeping things tied up”, incorporated in the 1980 constitution which with minor modifications is in force to this day.
Authoritarian features of Chile’s institutions, a legacy from the military regime, are preserved by the “leyes de amarre” which are virtually cast in concrete.
One of the most controversial issues is the “binominal” (dual candidate) electoral system, which encourages domination by two large coalitions: the centre-left Coalition of Parties for Democracy (Concertación), in power from 1990 to 2010, and the rightwing Coalition for Change that is now in government.
The system promotes a perpetual near-tie between the two leading coalitions which has blocked real change and hampered the introduction of mechanisms like mandatory primary elections for candidates within political parties.
“When the country returned to democracy (in 1990), 90 percent of the people were registered to vote and 85 percent actually voted,” sociologist Marta Lagos told IPS.
“The political system undermines citizens’ sovereignty,” she said.
She added that for the first 20 years of democracy, Chile directed its efforts at improving the economy, rather than the political system, which is why its institutions are so backward.
Political analyst Guillermo Holzmann concurred, and said the constraints of the electoral system are perceived as an obstacle to more effective representation by both political parties and general citizens.
“What we have today is disillusion with the political system in general and with democracy in particular, and this is all related to participation mechanisms,” he said.
“If citizens lack adequate mechanisms for making their voices heard, or cannot exert any influence on executive branch decisions, it will be very difficult to achieve a higher quality democracy,” Holzmann said.
In his view, the fundamental issue is the quality of democracy, “which requires a more comprehensive reform, not only of the electoral system, but to establish mechanisms to give independent sectors an opportunity to participate.”
Lagos and Holzmann agreed that reform is more urgent now, after last year which was marked by the most vigorous social protests since the return of democracy.
There is a climate of social unrest that has the government of rightwing President Sebastián Piñera with its back up against a wall, and Piñera’s personal approval rating has plummeted below that of any president since democracy was restored.
“The social protests are a consequence of the crisis of representation arising from this electoral system. If you ask people if their political ideas are represented, 60 percent of Chileans say, ‘no’,” said Lagos.
She said that when a political system does not allow pluralism and free competition between ideas, a country “effectively ends up being ungovernable”.
“People eventually take their frustration on to the streets, and the more the street protests, the less representation is vested in the political system,” Lagos said.
A new law introducing automatic voter registration and voluntary voting, removing the obligation on registered electors to exercise their vote, is adding to the pressure for electoral system reform.
By eliminating the need to register as a voter at the age of 18, this law will add 4.5 million voters to the electoral roll, 80 percent of whom are aged under 35.
At the promulgation of the law on Jan. 23, Piñera said that the reform raises the number of potential voters by 55 percent, and that of electors under the age of 29 by 332 percent, a significant rejuvenation of the pool of potential voters.
This legal change will be put into practice for the first time in the local municipal elections in October, with an electoral roll swollen from eight million voters to 12.5 million. The total population of Chile is 17.5 million.
Then there is the proposal for structural changes to the “binominal” electoral system, put forward by the governing National Renewal party and the opposition Christian Democratic party, the first instance of a reform pursued jointly by the two coalitions dominating national politics.
Under the binomial system, parties or coalitions present lists of two candidates in each congressional electoral district, for two parliamentary seats; both seats are awarded to the most-voted list, or one seat each to the top two lists if the list in second place receives more than half the votes obtained by the first.
However, experts say that a structural reform of the electoral system could take years, and will therefore remain an issue in future legislative and presidential elections, due in 2013 and every four years thereafter. The binomial system is in the interests of sitting lawmakers, who are therefore reluctant to eliminate it.
Holzmann doubts whether the structural reform could be approved in time for the 2013 elections.
“It is not very feasible, because no matter how seats in Congress are distributed between the political parties, it is very unlikely they will commit a sort of premature political suicide by approving a reform that will affect them directly at the next elections,” he said.
All in all, it is hard to see what direction a new electoral system in Chile will take, as in Lagos’ view, “there is no single optimal system.”
“If we look at the history of electoral systems, we realise they are infinitely heterogeneous, and therefore there is no ideal model. Every nation finds its own electoral system; the choice is very wide and the combinations are many,” the sociologist said.
Changing the party system is “very complex”, she said, and gave as an illustration the electoral reform in Mexico.
“Looking around the rest of the region, one sees that the main weakness of democracy in Latin America has been achieving the institutionalisation of new party systems. In Chile the system was already institutionalised (by the Pinochet dictatorship) and that was one of the great strengths that allowed the country to develop economically, but now the system is exhausted,” she said.
Piñera himself, at the promulgation of the new law, recognised there are signs of “exhaustion” in Chilean democracy and a “loss or weakening of prestige in the principal democratic institutions”.
The government also wishes to enact a law to make primary elections for political party candidates mandatory; unblock another law to allow Chileans living abroad to register as voters; and make polling stations and voting booths mixed, instead of the present arrangements where men and women vote separately.
But these changes have met with head-on resistance from within the governing coalition, especially from its second largest party, the far-right Independent Democratic Union, the political heir of Pinochet, which opposes any change to the binomial system instituted by the dictatorship.
“Chile must find a new system in order to compete in the globalised world, because the institutions adopted in the past are now being resisted by the Chilean people,” said Holzmann.
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