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Chile - Elections 1989

The transition to democracy, begun with the October 5, 1988, plebiscite which denied President Pinochet 8 more years in office, continued with the December 14, 1989, election of a civilian President and Congress. The elections were characterized by international observers as free and fair.

The human rights environment in Chile improved dramatically during 1989, although there were continuing instances of abuses. Freedom from arbitrary arrest continued to be undermined by vaguely defined and far-reaching state security laws. Torture and kidnapings were considerably reduced in comparison to previous years. Restrictions on freedom of speech and press had been greatly reduced in law and largely disappeared in practice. Human rights organizations report that politically motivated kidnapings by private or paramilitary groups continued in 1989, but the number of incidents were lower and the duration of the detentions shorter than in past years.

The transition from a military junta, which had held power for 16 years, to a democratically elected civilian Government proceeded in keeping with the terms of the 1980 Constitution. The transition back to democracy began with presidency of Patricio Aylwin Azocar in 1990. Elections were held 14 December 1989 for all the seats of the new bicameral Parliament provided for in the amended 1989 Constitution. Over 95 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the fair and orderly elections. General elections had not been held since March 1973, six months before the military coup d'Etat. Subsequent to the general elections of March 1973, the bicameral Congress was dissolved in the wake of the military coup d'Etat of the following September. Thereafter, absolute power lay with the military junta, led by General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. A new Constitution was adopted in 1980. Results of an October 1988 plebiscite opposed Gen. Pinochet’s remaining in office, and open presidential and congressional elections were thus scheduled for 1989.

Discussions among government officials and political leaders led to an agreement in April on changes to the 1980 Constitution, for purposes of "perfecting" it (in the view of the officials) and to make it more democratic (in the view of the political leaders) . The package of reforms was then submitted to a plebiscite on July 30. Approximately 92 percent of registered voters participated in the peaceful plebiscite, and 85 percent approved the package of reforms. Although critics of the 1980 Constitution contend the reforms were not sufficiently far-reaching, the reforms included provisions to make amendment of the Constitution less burdensome; increased the number of elected Senators, thus diluting the power of appointed Senators; diminished the role of the National Security Council and equalized the number of civilians and military officers within it (it had previously been weighted in favor of the military); and shortened the next presidential term of office to 4 years.

During the year, Patricio Aylwin Azócar emerged as the sole presidential candidate of the centre-left Concertación de los Partidos por la Democracia (CPD), an alliance of 17 parties led by Mr. Aylwin’s Christian Democratic Party (PDC) and including several socialist parties. The election campaign was dominated by demands from both the CPD and right-wing parties for constitutional reforms, which were approved by popular referendum in July. In his program, Aylwin promised to confront critical economic and social problems (such as health, housing, the minimum wage and employment) facing the country, increase Chile’s exports and combat human rights abuses.

On polling day, Aylwin gained an absolute majority in the presidential race over Hernan Büchi Buc, a former Finance Minister who was supported by the Government and the two main conservative parties, National Renewal (RN) and the Independent Democratic Union (UDI), and over Mr. Francisco Javier Errazuriz, another right-wing candidate. In the congressional contests, the PDC topped five other parties in securing 40 Deputies and 13 Senate seats, but the opposition bloc lost its Upper House edge after the appointment of nine Senators by the outgoing military régime.

President Aylwin took office on 11 March 1990 and his Cabinet (mainly PDC and Socialist) was sworn in the same day. Gen. Pinochet continues as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces until 1997. On 20 March, the new Congress met for its inaugural session. Aylwin, easily won the long-awaited presidential election as the candidate of the Coalition of Parties for Democracy (Concertacion de Partidos por la Democracia—CPD), winning 55.2 percent of the vote. In concurrent congressional elections, the CPD also won a majority of elected seats in both houses of Congress. However, the coalition was unable to offset the nine Pinochet-designated senators, making the CPD's plans for further reform of the military-designed constitution unattainable for the foreseeable future.

As a democratic political model, the Aylwin government had a major handicap, namely the military, which, according to Arturo Valenzuela, served as a virtually autonomous power within the government. With the help of its rightist allies in Congress, the military demonstrated its influence by derailing the Aylwin government's cautious but determined attempts to prosecute mili- tary officers for past human rights abuses. Aylwin refused to support the enactment of a blanket amnesty law, such as the one approved by Uruguay's General Assembly for military officers ac- cused of human rights abuses committed between 1973 and 1978.

The military's rightist allies in Congress also thwarted the Aylwin government's attempts to enact reforms, such as one that would have eliminated the designated senators and another that would have replaced the military-designed binomial electoral system with a system of proportional representation. Despite his setbacks in enacting reforms, Aylwin made good use of the strong presidential powers provided by the Pinochet-designed constitution. For example, he succeeded in enacting a constitutional reform law restoring the country's tradition of elected local governments and another limiting the power of the military courts to trying only those military personnel on active duty.

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Page last modified: 26-03-2020 18:53:06 ZULU