Ending the Permanent Draw: Chile’s Controversial Constitutional Reform

Chile’s new president sets out to overhaul the country’s electoral system that gives a permanent advantage to the right.

President Michelle Bachelet of Chile answers questions from reporters, April 25
President Michelle Bachelet of Chile answers questions from reporters, April 25 (Gobierno de Chile)

Last month, Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, signed into law the first major bill that aims to fulfil her electoral promise of constitutional reform. The bill is designed to overhaul the country’s unpopular binomial electoral system, designed in 1984 by Augusto Pinochet’s military regime, to preserve the power of the right wing after Chile’s transition to democracy.

Chile is currently the only country in the world to use the binomial system, its only other use being Poland’s brief experiment with the process during the 1980s.

Under the binomial model, two parliamentary seats are available per geographical constituency and seats are won by the two political parties with the highest percentage share of votes. Parties must obtain 33.4 percent of the vote to win one seat and 66.7 percent to win both.

The practical result is that Chile’s right-wing coalition has consistently retained half of the available congressional seats, despite only ever winning at most a third of the public vote.

During her election campaign, Bachelet termed the binomial system “a thorn in the heart of [Chile’s] democracy” and promised she would end what has been dubbed “the permanent draw” of Chilean politics.

As legacies of the Pinochet regime, the binomial system and Chile’s constitution, have never been popular. The dictatorship introduced binomial voting via its 1984 constitution, anticipating that Chile’s return to democracy would result in the marginalization of right-wing parties. At the same time, it redrew constituency boundaries to favor smaller, sparsely populated rural districts over which it had greater control.

The regime assumed that with the return of multiparty democracy, the left-wing vote would be too divided for leftist parties to win the majorities necessary to gain individual seats, or entire congressional districts. However, the political left, determined to rid Chile of the dictatorship which had ruled for almost two decades, banded together to form a coalition which has dominated Chilean politics ever since.

Nevertheless, while the left’s political success in the face of electoral disadvantage is no small achievement, the discipline required to preserve a stable coalition has come at the expense of political vibrancy. The right-wing’s response over the years has been to form their own coalition, resulting in a stalemate in which Chile’s legislature is split between left- and right-wing coalitions. Smaller political parties and independents are stifled by the coalition system, and politicians as well as ordinary citizens have grown impatient with the deadlock that has lasted for decades. constitutional reform therefore has public and crossparty support.

Despite this support, Bachelet’s reform bill met with opposition. It focuses solely on the reform of binomialism, seeking to move toward a system of proportional representation. Bachelet aims to increase the number of senators in the upper house of Chile’s legislature from thirty to fifty, while the the number of deputies in the lower house would increase from 120 to 155.

The bill also seeks to redefine constituency boundaries based on population size. The sixty existing voter districts would be fused into 27 constituencies, electing between three and eight officials. With more seats available in congressional districts, it is hoped that parties will avoid being forced into coalitions, being free to run against one another, thus stimulating political diversity.

The bill requires a three-fifths majority to make it into the statute books and therefore requires the support of right-wing and independent politicians to be made into law — the very politicians who may lose influence through the reforms.

Chile’s former conservative President, Sebastián Piñera, is among a number of lawmakers who have criticized the bill, stating that the increased number of legislators is unnecessary. During his own presidency, Piñera sought to introduce legislation which would, like Bachelet’s bill, redefine voter districts, but otherwise make minimal changes to the electoral process.

Bachelet also faces another tough battle on constitutional reform — the drafting of a new constitution itself. Galvanized by the desire for a new constitution among the Chilean public, a new civic organization, the Broad Front for a al Assembly, was created in March, comprised of former presidential candidates, lawyers, politicians and political activists. The organization’s aim is to push for the creation of a al Assembly, similar to those used in other Latin American countries.

Bachelet herself is rumored to favor the creation of an expert commission to draft a new constitution.

constitutional assemblies, though widely used across Latin America, have a less than sterling reputation. Members of assemblies are directly elected by the public, largely made up of candidates endorsed by whichever political party is in power at the time, and are thus highly politicized.

Though the aim of such assemblies is to make the final constitution reflective of the will of the public, members often lack expertise in constitutional law and institution building. Grassroots activists, which have previously formed the majority of such assemblies in Latin America, are not legal experts. al negotiations have frequently been tainted by delays, political deadlocks and allegations of populism, often being accused of failing to protect minorities. Bolivia’s Constitutional Assembly took two years to draft a new constitution, only to have it rejected in a referendum after the assembly itself lost legitimacy. In Ecuador, a similar assembly made up primarily of the president’s supporters, effectively dissolved the National Congress.

Bachelet is therefore in a difficult position. She will be forced to rely on her political opponents to push forward a bill that is likely to lose them influence. She also aims to create a popular, democratically legitimate constitution which represents the aspirations of Chileans keen to break with their dictatorial past, without descending into the type of chaos that has dogged the constitutional reforms of other Latin American countries.

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