Decentralization of power in Chile will be an electoral test

SANTIAGO – Sebastián Piñera’s administration is implementing a decentralization law created by his predecessor. This process involves a seismic, if slow, shift of power from the center, Santiago, to Chile’s regions. The elections of regional governors slated for end-2020, will also serve as a test balloon for the 2021 general election.

Chile is one of the most centralized OECD countries. This reality is reflected in the constellation of Santiago’s Barrio Cívico, which houses the country’s ministries. Just across the street of La Moneda government palace is the Intendance of Santiago. The capital alone concentrates 40% of the population.

Historically, aristocratic families have resided in the capital and thus made it the country’s power center. Surviving dictatorship and democracy, this structure has largely remained in place. Hence, the executive in Santiago has been choosing all regional authorities, except mayors, which are the only public functionaries that haven’t been under supervision of the central government.

Nonetheless, this year marks the beginning of the transitional process of competences. If the process goes through, regional power, and the country at large, will enjoy more democratic legitimacy. The former Bachelet administration has created the Law on Strengthening Regionalization, and the current Piñera administration is implementing it.

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In its initial stage, the reform mandates the relocation power of sub-branches of four ministries’ (Housing, Transport & Communications, Economy, Social Development) regional representations. Territorial and urban planning, subsidies for the regional transport programs, measure for enhancing productivity, and the assignment of social investment funds will all be managed regionally.

Most importantly, the new legislation allows for the direct election of regional governors. The first such elections are scheduled for October 2020. Moreover, the current figure of intendant will be substituted with a presidential delegate as regional representative of the executive.

So far, however, the reform is just a paper tiger. As the new regional authorities lack, among other things, an income law, they can’t finance their powers.

Pros and cons

Not all sectors are happy with the plan. Opposition figures like senator Felipe Harboe from the Party for Democracy (PPD) claim the initial transfer is insufficient. Among other things, regional governors don’t have enough competences in matters of public security and public works.

Representatives of the ruling coalition, unsurprisingly, support the process. The chair of the Independent Democratic Union party (UDI), Jacqueline van Rysselberghe, thinks the pace is good with only 15 competences being transferred in this early stage.

In addition to choose the new regional authorities, the election in October 2020 will also serve as referendum on the Piñera administration and the opposition before the general election of 2021.

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