Chile's Bachelet unveils Congress reform

While defenders say it has provided Chile with political stability in its transition to democracy, critics say it has allowed an over-represented right to block reform.

Chile's Bachelet unveils Congress reform

World Bulletin / News Desk

President Michelle Bachelet presented legislation on Wednesday to undertake a major reform of Chile’s legislative system which will have major implications for the balance of powers between the political parties in Congress.

The bill would replace the current binominal system with a system of proportional representation. Under the binominal system, introduced under the military government of General Augusto Pinochet, each seat or region elects two deputies or senators to Congress.

Critics blame the system for giving too much power to the two largest political forces – the rightwing Alianza and the center-left Concertacion – while excluding smaller groups such as the Communist Party and other leftwing groups.

The system also means that thinly inhabited regions, such as Aysen and Magallanes, are much better represented than the capital Santiago, home to around a third of the population.

While defenders say it has provided Chile with political stability in its transition to democracy, critics say it has allowed an over-represented right to block reform.

Bachelet, who swept to power last December with almost two-thirds of the votes, is pushing for major reforms of the tax system and the education sector, as well as the political system.

“The binominal system should be changed because it denies a basic principle of democracy which is majority rule,” the president said after signing the bill which requires the approval of Congress.

“The binomial system is a thorn in the heart of our democracy. It is a system born of the dictatorship and it survives through exclusion,” said Bachelet, who was imprisoned and exiled by the Pinochet regime and whose father, a general in the air force, died following torture.

“This is not the way we want to ensure our political and social stability…we opt for dialog and agreement,” she said.

Under the bill, the number of senators will be increased from 38 to 50, while the number of deputies will be increased by 35 to 155.

Each deputy will represent one of 28 newly-created districts with each district sending between three and seven deputies to Congress, depending on the size of its population.

The bill also seeks to increase the representativeness of Congress, by requiring that 40 percent of a political party’s candidates be women.

The rightwing Independent Democratic Union, Chile’s largest party has been quick to condemn the government’s proposed changes. By allowing some districts to elect up to eight districts, the bill promises to give much more room to minority parties so far largely excluded from Congress, noted Arturo Squella, a deputy for the Independent Democratic Union.

“This bill is made-to-measure for the Communist Party,” Squella said in a statement.

Chile’s Communist Party, whose members include student leader Camila Vallejos, has increased in standing largely by seeking deals with other left-wingers to run unopposed in some districts.

Squella added that the Independent Democratic Union would seek to reach a deal with other movements outside parliament for an alternative reform of Congress, based on the number of legislators not increasing and the balance between Santiago and the regions remaining the same.

However, Claudio Fuentes, head of political science at the Diego Portales University, said the proposal is likely to be approved as the government enjoys majorities in both houses of Congress while the rightwing opposition is split on the issue.

The change could pave the way for the peeling back of more of Chile’s military government-era conservative laws. However, as the legislation would only be implemented from 2018, it will be many years before its full effect will be felt, Fuentes noted.

Last Mod: 24 Nisan 2014, 11:43
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