History of Chile POLITICS

30 Years of Chilean Democracy

On Oct. 5, 1988, Chile had a national referendum, the choice was between Yes, which meant Pinochet would stay in power for eight more years, and No, which meant a return to democracy.  The No won with 56 percent of the votes, which meant that Chile would see a peaceful transition of power. Marc. 11 marked the 30th anniversary of that transition.

On Mar. 11, 1990, Dictator Pinochet transferred the powers of the president to democratically elected Patricio Aylwin, making this the first presidential swearing in ceremony since 1970. Yesterday marked the 30th anniversary of that historic moment, which was commemorated in a ceremony with current President Sebastián Piñera, who finds himself in a deep political crisis due to the ongoing protests and his ever-dwindling approval numbers. Some members of the opposition parties are now seriously pursuing a declaration that the president is mentally and physically unfit for office.

The last 30 years can be divided into three distinct eras. When Aylwin took office he began what is now known as the Transition to Democracy, which overlaps with the Concertación, which was a center-left coalition that held power from 1990 up until 2010. They came to an end when Sebastián Piñera was elected president for the first time, resulting in the first right-wing president since the return to democracy.

After Piñera’s first term, there was a political duality between Michelle Bachelet and Piñera, who both had second terms one after the other, switching the country from left to right in the span of 10 years. Piñera still has two more years to serve.

Chile Today takes a look at what has been accomplished in the past 30 years.

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Transition to Democracy

After the 1988 referendum, the preparations for the transition to democracy began. The Constitution was amended to prevent future changes, the role of the legislative branch was reestablished and the binomial electoral system was chosen. These changes were highly criticized as authoritarian.

In December 1989, the first elections were held and, as noted above, Aylwin, a member of the Christian Democratic party (DC), which was then a part of the Concertación coalition, won the election with 52.2% of the votes. On Mar. 11, 1990, he received the presidential band from Pinochet and officially became the first democratically-elected president since Salvador Allende was chosen in 1970.

One of the first things Aylwin did as president was establish the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, which was tasked with investigating human rights violations during the dictatorship. A year later, the committee issued the Rettig Report, which identified 2,279 people as victims of human rights violations during the dictatorship. Aylwin followed up by making sure that the victims received reparations and that those who were still political prisoners were freed.

His government had a tense relationship with the armed forces. A vivid example of this is when the judicial branch began investigating corruption charges against the Pinochet family. In response, soldiers with war uniforms, painted faces, and black berets surrounded the armed forces building, just steps from La Moneda (the presidential palace), while the high military command asked to meet with the government. After some negotiating the investigation was dropped.

Aylwin only served a four-year term and was barred from participating in politics, which was a part of the conditions to the 1988 referendum. When he left office, he had helped bridge the wealth gap that had formed as a result of the neoliberal politics of the 1980s and amended international relationships with many important trading partners, helping Chile get back onto the world stage.

La Concertación Era

When Alwyn left office, it was declared that Chile had officially entered democratic rule, meaning that the next president would serve for 6 years, from 1994 until 2000. Due to the amount of candidates available, the two biggest coalitions had primary elections, for the first time in Chilean history.

In the Concertación it was Eduardo Frei against Ricardo Lagos, while in the right-wing coalition, Unity for Progress, it was Piñera, Evelyn Mathei, and Arturo Alessandri. Frei won with 64 percent of the votes while Alessandri was named the nominee after Mathei and Piñera stepped down due to the events of Piñeragate, in which Mathei tapped Piñera’s phone line and discovered that he was colluding with their party to get her to step down.

In December 1993, Frei beat Alessandri with 57 percent of the votes, keeping the DC in power for six more years. Frei was sworn in on Mar. 11, 1994, and one of his primary goals was to continue the democratization that Aylwin had started, albeit more conservatively and focused on maintaining the neoliberal economic model that existed in the country. One of his biggest accomplishments was a complete reform of the penal system that would be implemented one year after he left office.

The next elections were held in 1999, in the middle of a recession that had been caused by the 1998 Asian market crash. In this context, the right-wing candidate, Joaquín Lavin, used the general discontent to keep up with the Concertación candidate Lagos. Up until this election, most candidates had managed to obtain more than the 50 percent necessary to win the presidency.

On election day, however, both candidates ended up with 47 percent, triggering a second round of voting for the first time since the creation of this system. The second round was held in January 2000, without a third-party candidate. In the end, Lagos won with 51 percent of the votes, keeping the Concertatión in power until 2006 and making him the first socialist president since Allende.

Lagos’s government pursued a continuation of the economic reforms proposed by Frei and the implementation of the new penal system. His administration also managed to expand Chile’s international relations by signing numerous commerce agreements with the United States, China, the European Union, and others. He also oversaw the creation of the Valech Report, which further investigated the human rights abuses committed during the Pinochet dictatorship and identified 38,254 victims of the state.

Lagos also oversaw a reform to the 1980 Constitution. Among the things he changed were the presidential term limits. They were reduced from six years to four. After the reforms were applied, he proudly claimed that the transition to democracy had been complete—a claim that has received many criticisms, primarily that his reforms weren’t enough.

The 2005 election was held on Dec. 11, 2005. Due to internal issues, the conservative coalition split up among the conservative who supported Lavin and the liberals who supported Piñera. The Concertación was represented by Bachelet, while the newly-created leftist coalition “Juntos podemos más” (“Together we can do more”), promoted candidate Tómas Hirsh. After the first round, it was down to Piñera and Bachelet.

In January 2006, Bachelet won with 53 percent of the vote. She was inaugurated as Chile’s first female president on Mar. 11 of that same year. Her term was focused on pursuing gender equality and improving the social safety net for the poorest members of society.

The beginning of her term, however, was marked by the 2006 student protests, and mishandling of the newly-created Transantiago bus system. Nevertheless, by the end of her term in 2010, she left with 84 percent approval, the highest of any Chilean president. This was thanks to her handling of the 2008 financial crisis and the popularity of the social programs that she had implemented.

The next elections were held in December 2009 with a second round in January 2010. The two candidates were Former-President Frei and Piñera. After the second round, Piñera was declared the winner with 51 percent of the votes. This was a big change for Chilean politics, as it was the time that the Concertación had lost an election and it meant that Piñera would be the first right-wing president since the return to democracy in 1990.

Piñera and Bachelet

Piñera was inaugurated in March 2010, only a couple of weeks after the 2010 earthquake had devastated the south of Chile. In fact, the ceremony was interrupted due to one of the quake’s aftershocks. His first actions as president were focused on helping those who had been affected by the earthquake and helping rebuild structures destroyed by the earthquake.

His government was also heavily involved in the historic rescue operation of the 33 miners who were trapped for nearly 70 days underground. He also oversaw the 2011 student protests which helped launch the political careers of many current politicians. Lastly, he oversaw a massive reform to the electoral system, which included making voting voluntary, not mandatory.

The next presidential elections implemented the new system. The elections were held in November 2013 with a second round in December of that same year. This election boiled down to Bachelet, representing the newly-created New Majority coalition, and Mathei, representing the Unity for Progress coalition. Due to the new electoral system, less than half the population participated.

In December 2013, Bachelet won with 62 percent of the votes, and she took office in March 2014. During her second term, she completed many of the projects that she had started during her first term. These included connecting the Costanera Highway and the main highway.

Her administration also pursued major social changes, like the decriminalization of therapeutic abortions and the creation of the civil union law, which allowed same-sex couples to enjoy many of the benefits of marriage. In 2015, she said that she would start a constitutional process to change the 1980 Constitution, a process that came to a halt after her coalition lost the 2017 elections to Piñera.

Piñera’s second term has been focused on growing the economy, but that effort has faltered since the social protests began in October 2019. On the first day of the protests, he declared a national emergency, bringing the military out into the streets for the first time since the return to democracy. Many saw this as a severe departure from democracy, others, as a necessary evil. As the protests continue and the plebiscite for a new constitution approaches in April, it remains to be seen what Piñera can make of his next two years in office.

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