Structural Reforms in Chile: Moving Forward in Midst of Political Crisis

By Claudia Heiss*

Bachelet Chile

Photo Credit: Chile Ayuda a Chile / Flickr / Creative Commons

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has done well pushing her reform agenda despite a series of scandals regarding the illegal financing of political campaigns and abuse of power by her daughter-in-law.  Bachelet started with 58 percent support and the highest electoral margin of victory since Chile’s return to democracy in 1990.  Her New Majority coalition incorporated the Communist Party and replaced the Concertación, the center-left coalition defeated in 2010 at the end of her first period, and after 20 years in power.  Bachelet’s current program reflected a left-turn and an intention to correct perceived flaws of a transition criticized for assuming too many features of the model imposed by the dictatorship.  The program included a tax plan to finance education reform introducing free university in a commoditized market of superior education.  This project was the offspring of massive student protests in 2011.  Another proposal was to replace the dictatorship-era 1980 Constitution through an “institutional, democratic, and participatory” process.

The scandals have hurt Bachelet’s popularity – she ended her first term in 2010 with 80 percent support and is now at historical lows below 30 percent – undermined the legitimacy of the political parties and Congress, and prompted a surge of social mobilizations.  (Slower economic growth, owing to the low price of copper, has contributed to the government’s unpopularity.)  But the President has scored some big wins.  In addition to the tax and education reforms she sought, the government has achieved important advances in the direction of its political program:

  • In 2015, a proportional system replaced the Binomial electoral system, which severely distorted popular will in the election of representatives and granted veto power in Congress to the political heirs of the dictatorship.
  • The campaign finance scandals led to the recent approval of a “Probity Agenda,” including higher transparency, forbidding corporate donations to political campaigns, and establishing a new law to regulate political parties.
  • A bill to make the main regional authority, the Intendente, elective rather than appointed by the President – a major step toward decentralization – has passed the Senate.
  • The decriminalization of therapeutic abortion, currently punished in only five countries, was approved by the Chamber of Deputies.
  • Congress is in the final steps of approving a labor reform meant to increase the negotiating power of workers towards their employers.
  • A complex constitutional reform process was launched last year, and this month the government selected 216 “facilitators” to assist the process and initiated a series of local meetings to discuss constitutional principles, rights, duties, and institutions. The process, the first of its kind ever in Chile, will lead to a presidential proposal to be presented to Congress.

The road ahead will not be easy for President Bachelet and her allies.  The political climate is pessimistic, and China’s economic troubles suggest the commodity bubble is over – to the detriment of the Chilean economy.  While rejected by conservatives, the changes appear as insufficient to those who want more radical reforms.  The labor bill has been criticized by union leaders as not allowing enough collective bargaining, and the proposal for constitutional change falls short of a binding participatory process like a Constituent Assembly or a referendum would be.  Bachelet, however, has deftly channeled anger about the scandals into the constructive reforms of the Probity Agenda, and she changed the perception of what is achievable in Chile in terms of progressive political and social transformations.  While public opinion is currently harsh with the government and with political elites, her second term, which ends in 2018, could in the long run consolidate her legacy as an effective reformer even in the face of adversity.

April 14, 2016

*Claudia Heiss is Assistant Professor at Universidad de Chile’s Instituto de Asuntos Públicos and researcher at the Centre for Social Conflict and Cohesion Studies, COES.

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