Chile Table of Contents

Development and Breakdown of Democracy, 1830-1973

Following the wars of independence and several failed experiments in institution building, Chile after 1830 made steady progress toward the construction of representative institutions, showing a constancy almost without parallel in South American political history. From 1830 until 1973, almost all of Chile's presidents stepped down at the end of their prescribed terms in office to make way for constitutionally designated successors. The only exceptions to this pattern occurred in 1891, after a brief civil war; in the turbulence from late 1924 to 1927, which followed the military's intervention against the populist President Arturo Alessandri Palma (1920-24, 1925, 1932-38); in 1931, when several chief executives resigned under pressure and military officers intervened directly in politics; and in 1932, when the commander of the Air Force of Chile (Fuerza Aérea de Chile--FACh), Marmaduke Grove Vallejo, proclaimed his short-lived Socialist Republic. For most of its history, Chile was governed by two charters--the constitution of 1833 and the constitution of 1925, which drew heavily on its nineteenth-century predecessor.

Under the 1833 document, Chilean presidents, notably Manuel Bulnes Prieto (1841-51) and Manuel Montt Torres (1851-61), presided over the gradual institutionalization of representative practices and a gradual expansion of suffrage, while exercising strong executive authority. By the 1870s, the president was being challenged by increasingly cohesive political parties, which, from their vantage point in the National Congress (Congreso Nacional; hereafter, Congress), sought to limit executive prerogatives and curb presidential intervention in the electoral process.

With the assertion of congressional power, presidents were limited to one term, and their control over elections was circumscribed. However, it took the Civil War of 1891 to bring to an end the chief executive's power to manipulate the electoral process to his advantage. The victory of the congressional forces in that conflict inaugurated a long period in which Congress was at the center of national politics. From 1891 until 1924, presidents were required to structure their cabinets to reflect changing legislative majorities, and the locus of policy making was subject to the intrigues and vote trading of the legislature.

Although politics during the parliamentary period was often chaotic and corrupt, Chile enjoyed unusual prosperity based on a booming nitrate trade and relatively enlightened leadership. Political parties, whose activities had once been limited to the corridors of Congress, soon engaged the interests and energies of Chileans at every level of society. The parties thus provided the basis for an open, highly competitive political system comparable to those of Europe's parliamentary democracies. The competitiveness of Chilean politics permitted the emergence of new interests and movements, including the Communist Party of Chile (Partido Comunista de Chile--PCCh) and the Socialist Party (Partido Socialista--PS), representing a growing and increasingly militant proletariat.

The collapse of nitrate exports and the crisis brought on by the Great Depression of the 1930s discredited the politicians of Chile's oligarchical democracy and encouraged the growth of alternative political forces. From 1924 to 1931, Chile was buffeted by political instability as several presidents resigned from office and Carlos Ibáñez del Campo (1927-31, 1952- 58), a military officer, rose to power on an antipolitics platform. In 1925 a new constitution was approved. Although it did not deviate substantially from previous constitutional doctrine, it was designed to shift the balance of power from Congress back to the president.

By the second and third decades of the twentieth century, Chile was facing some of the same challenges confronting the nations of Europe. Parliamentary democracy had fallen into disrepute as the machinations of corrupt elites were challenged by both fascism and socialism, doctrines that stressed social as opposed to political rights and that sought to expand the power of the state in pursuing them. Precisely because of its tradition of competitive politics and the strength of its political parties, Chile was able to withstand the challenge of alternative ideologies without experiencing the breakdown of democratic authority that swept the South American continent.

Chilean politics changed dramatically, however, as a multiparty system emerged without exact parallel in Latin America, one in which strong Marxist parties vied with conservative parties, while pragmatic centrist parties attempted to mediate. In this polarized context, presidents governed with shifting coalitions, pushing the country alternately to the right or left, depending on the particular political configuration of the moment. Although the left gained ground throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the right maintained electoral clout by blocking efforts to bring congressional representation into line with new demographic trends. This was not a period of policy stalemate, however. By encouraging a policy of import-substitution industrialization and expanding social welfare programs, the Chilean state markedly increased its role in national life.

In the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Chilean politics changed in a qualitative sense. With the 1964 election of a Christian Democratic government under the leadership of President Eduardo Frei Montalva (1964-70), Chile embarked on an experiment in reformist politics intended to energize the economy while redistributing wealth. Frei and his colleagues were determined to modernize the country through the introduction of significant social reforms, including an extensive agrarian reform that would bring an end to the concentration of economic power in the hands of rural landlords.

Frei's government accomplished many of its objectives. In pushing for change, however, the president broke the tacit alliance with the right that had made his election possible. His attempt to co-opt part of the program of the left and mobilize followers in traditionally leftist constituencies also threatened the Marxist parties. By the end of the 1960s, the polarization of Chilean politics had overwhelmed the traditional civility of Chile's vaunted democratic institutions. The centrist agreements of the past, which had enabled presidents to navigate a difficult course of compromise and conciliation, now became more difficult to attain.

In a reflection of Chile's increased ideological polarization, Allende was elected president with 36.2 percent of the vote in 1970. Unable or unwilling to form coalitions, the left, center, and right had all nominated their own candidates in the mistaken hope of obtaining a majority. Although Allende's Popular Unity (Unidad Popular--UP) government drew initially on the congressional support of the Christian Democrats, whose backing made his election possible in the congressional runoff on October 24, 1970, the left increasingly pushed to implement its agenda without building political bridges to the "bourgeois parties." Like Frei before him, Allende was convinced that he would be able to break the deadlock of Chile's ideologically entrenched multiparty system and create a new majority capable of implementing his revolutionary agenda. Once this effort failed, Allende's attempts to implement his program by decree only heightened opposition to his policies. Finally, the president's failure to make substantial gains from his electoral victory in the March 1973 congressional elections meant that he would be unable to obtain the necessary congressional majority to implement his legislative objectives. In an atmosphere of growing confrontation, in which moderates on both sides failed to come up with a regime-saving compromise, the military forces moved in to break the political deadlock, establishing the longest and most revolutionary government in the nation's history.

Imposition of Authoritarian Rule
The Constitution of 1980
Authoritarianism Defeated by Its Own Rules
The Constitutional Reforms of 1989

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress