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Chile - Government

Chile's Constitution was approved in a September 1980 national plebiscite. It entered into force in March 1981. The Constitution was approved in a national referendum in 1980 and provides for a system of government composed of three separate and independent powers: an executive branch headed by a President (with a non-renewable four-year term), a legislative branch consisting of a two-chambered Congress, and a judicial branch in which the Supreme Court is the highest authority. The Constitution also provides for a Constitutional Court, which is the highest authority for all matters of constitutional law.

The 1980 Constitution was significantly amended in 1989 and in 2005 to introduce important changes to the structure of the political system, including the increase of lower house’s oversight powers and a decrease in the powers and status of the National Security Council, which is now an advisory body, strengthening the role of the Constitutional Court by allowing it to rule on the constitutionality of laws and the introduction of a six-year Presidential term limit, which has subsequently been reduced to four years.

After Pinochet's defeat in the 1988 plebiscite, the Constitution was amended to ease provisions for future amendments to the Constitution. The constitution of 1925 had sought to reestablish strong presidential rule in order to offset the dominant role assumed by the legislature after the Civil War of 1891. Elected to serve a single six-year term, the president was given broad authority to appoint cabinets without the concurrence of the legislature, whose members were no longer eligible to serve in executive posts. Formal executive authority increased significantly in succeeding years as Congress delegated broad administrative authority to new presidents, who increasingly governed by decree. Constitutional reforms enacted in 1947 and in 1970 further reduced congressional prerogatives.

Although the 1925 constitution gave Chilean presidents increased power on paper, actual executive authority does not appear to have increased significantly. No president could count on gaining majority support without the backing of a broad alliance of parties. In 1932, 1938, 1942, and 1964, presidential candidates structured successful majority coalitions prior to the presidential election, promising other parties cabinet appointments and incorporation of some of their programmatic objectives.

In 1946, 1952, 1958, and 1970, because presidential candidates did not attract sufficient coalition support to win a majority of the votes, the election was thrown into Congress, which chose the winner from the two front-runners. Whether elected by a majority of the voters or through compromises with opposition parties in Congress, Chilean presidents found that governing often amounted to a balancing act. Only by structuring complex majority coalitions could the president pass legislative programs and prevent the censure of key ministers by Congress.

The presidential balancing act was complicated by frequent defections from the chief executive's coalition of supporters, even by members of his own party, particularly in the waning months of his constitutionally stipulated single term. One result was that the average cabinet often lasted less than a year (see table 37, Appendix). For example, in the government of Gabriel González Videla (1946-52), who was a member of the Radical Party (Partido Radical--PR), the average cabinet lasted six and one-half months; Allende's cabinets lasted slightly less than six months. The average duration of ministerial appointments was six months and seven months in the same two governments, respectively. This pattern resulted in frustrated presidents and policy discontinuity that belied the formal powers of the chief executive.

The authors of the constitution of 1980 sought to address the government's structural problems by creating a far stronger executive. The 1980 charter increases presidential terms from six to eight years but retains the prohibition against immediate reelection, and it gives broad new powers to the president at the expense of a weakened legislature. However, prior to the transfer of power in March 1994, the constitution was amended, reducing the presidential term back to six years.

The 1980 constitution specified that the president should be at least forty years of age, meet the constitutional requirements for citizenship, and have been born on Chilean territory. The president is elected by an absolute majority of the valid votes cast. The 1980 constitution did away with the traditional practice of having Congress decide between the two front-runners when no candidate receives an absolute majority of the votes. It institutes instead a second-round election aimed specifically at barring political bargaining in the legislature and ensuring the election of a president with the backing of a majority of the population.

In addition to specific prerogatives and duties, the constitution granted the president the legal right to "exercise statutory authority in all those matters that are not of a legal nature, without prejudice to the power to issue other regulations, decrees, or instructions which he may deem appropriate for the enforcement of the law" (Article 32). The president has the right to call plebiscites, propose changes to the constitution, declare states of emergency and exception, and watch over the performance of the court system. The president names ministers and, in accord with specific procedures, two senators, the comptroller general, the commanders of the armed forces, and all judges of the Supreme Court and appellate courts (cortes de apelaciones). Departing from previous practice, which required senatorial confirmation of diplomatic appointments, the 1980 constitution bars the legislative branch from any role in the confirmation process. Finally, it increases the legislative faculties of the president dramatically, making the chief executive a virtual colegislator (Article 32, in concordance with Article 60).

On 16 August 2005 a bill embodying 58 constitutional reforms was approved by Congress, and endorsed by then President Lagos. In September 2005, President Ricardo Lagos signed into law several constitutional amendments passed by Congress. Lagos made the reforms an objective of his government and they came into effect on 11 March 2006. This is the first major reform of congress since 1980. The key features of the reforms include:

  • Presidential terms reduced from 6 years to 4.
  • The end of designated senators and 'senators for life' (previously awarded to former Presidents), leaving just 38 senators elected by popular vote
  • Responsibility removed from the armed forces as 'institutional guarantors'; the change in functions of the National Security Council (Cosena); and the restoration of power to the president to remove the commanders-in-chief of the armed forces and the forces of order.
The reform was a milestone for Chile's continuing transition to democracy as it eliminated the so-called "authoritarian enclaves" (military government appointees who had occupied seats in the Senate and who had traditionally been a block to reforms proposed by the governing left-wing coalition.)

The modification of the binominal electoral system (another Pinochet legacy which gave disproportionate representation to the right-of-centre) was another aspiration of former President Lagos, but he did not succeed in gaining the support of all the political forces in order to change it. Nonetheless it has opened up the debate in Chile and then President-elect Michelle Bachelet made an election promise to reform the electoral system during her Presidential term, but she was not able to achieve this.

Chile has a bicameral Congress, which meets in the port city of Valparaiso, about 140 kilometers (84 miiles) west of the capital, Santiago. Deputies are elected every 4 years, and senators serve 8-year terms. Chile's congressional elections are governed by a unique binomial system that rewards coalition slates. Each coalition can run two candidates for the two Senate and two Deputy seats apportioned to each electoral district. Historically, the two largest coalitions (Concertacion and Alianza) split most of the seats in a district. Only if the leading coalition ticket out-polls the second-place coalition by a margin of more than 2-to-1 does the winning coalition gain both seats.

Chile's unique binomial system makes it extremely difficult for any coalition to win more than one seat per district. The result is that both coalitions win roughly the same number of seats. Since Congress usually includes some independents and representatives of other political groupings, it is difficult for either leading coalition to establish majority rule in either the Senate or Chamber of Deputies. Each coalition or political party presents a slate of two Senate candidates for each circumscription and another slate of two Chamber of Deputies candidates for each district. Voters cast ballots for one Senate candidate and one Chamber of Deputies candidate. The slate with the most votes earns one of the two seats, with the seat being awarded to the candidate on the slate with the highest number of votes. However, a single slate of candidates must outperform the second-place slate of candidates by a margin of more than two-to-one in order to gain both seats.

As Chile's congressional elections have been dominated by two coalitions, in practice this has meant that the winning list must receive roughly 66 percent of the votes to gain both seats in a given district, a process known as "doubling." This happens relatively rarely, and whether a coalition can replicate "doubling" in a handful of districts is be an important factor in determining which coalition fared better in this election.

Another important feature of Chile's congressional elections is the gerrymandering instituted by the Pinochet government that maximized areas that supported the military government during the plebiscite. Chamber districts are not based on population, and the 20 least populated districts elect 40 deputies while the 7 most populated districts - representing roughly the same population - elect only 14 deputies. Many Senate circumscriptions (districts) are the same as Chile's regions (similar to the U.S. where Senate districts are states, but some regions are divided into two circumscriptions.

All 120 Chamber of Deputies seats were up for election in December 2009 congressional elections. Alianza won 58, with Concertacion taking 54, Communists and Independent Regionalist Party each winning three, and independents winning two. In the Senate, where half of the 38 seats were up for election, Concertacion regained a slim majority and has 19 seats to Alianza’s 17, with independents holding the remaining two.

Each legislative chamber has a Committee on Defense, which is responsible for analyzing and reporting to its chamber’s plenary all bills related to national defense in general and to the Armed Forces in particular. In addition to analyzing and approving the defense sector budget, which includes the financial resources for defense, the Congress meets with the Executive Branch to approve laws to authorize or reject the entry of foreign troops into the national territory, as well as the posting of national troops abroad. The Congress also has the authority to approve or reject the State of Siege, proposed by the Executive.

Chile's judiciary is independent and includes civil, criminal, family and labor courts, courts of appeal, a system of military courts, a constitutional tribunal, and the Supreme Court. In June 2005, Chile completed a nation-wide overhaul of its criminal justice system. The reform replaced inquisitorial proceedings with an adversarial system, similar to that of the United States.

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Page last modified: 04-12-2012 19:01:45 ZULU