The Electoral System

Chile Table of Contents

The far-reaching electoral reforms implemented before the 1989 elections represented a further attempt to transform Chile's party structure into a moderate two-party system. The constitution of 1925 had established a system of proportional representation to allocate seats in multimember districts, the most widely used system in Latin America and Europe. For the elections to the Chamber of Deputies, the country was divided into twenty-eights districts, each electing between one and eighteen deputies for a total of 150, producing an average district delegation of 5.4 deputies. Although implementation of the proportional representation system was not responsible for the emergence of the country's multiparty system, it encouraged party fragmentation, particularly before 1960, when parties were allowed to form pacts with each other in constituting individual lists.

Women were granted the vote for municipal elections in 1934 and for national elections in 1949. Chile has a lively history of women's civic and political organizations that goes back to the early decades of the twentieth century, including the formation of two political parties led by women, one of which, the Feminine Civic Party (Partido Cívico Femenino), elected its main leader to the Senate before it faded from the scene in the mid-1950s. However, there are still conspicuously few women in national politics an din top government positions. Only six women were elected to Congress in 1989, and only one woman held ministerial rank in President Aylwin's government. Yet close to half of all Chileans who were affiliated with parties in 1992 were women, and slightly more than half of the electorate is composed of women.

The military government redrew electoral boundaries to create sixty legislative districts, each of which would send two representatives to the Chamber of Deputies. Redistricting favored smaller and more rural districts that were deliberately designed to favor progovernment parties. Thus, one vote in District 52, which was a government stronghold in the plebiscite, was worth three times more than one vote in District 18, in which the opposition had fared better. By reducing the electoral districts to an average representation of two deputies per district, the military authorities sought to create an electoral formula that would provide supporters of the Pinochet regime with a majority of the seats in the legislature, with a level of support comparable to Pinochet's vote in the plebiscite, or about 40 percent of the turnout.

According to the new law, parties or coalitions continue to present lists with a candidate for each of the two seats to be filled. The law considers both the votes for the total list and the votes for individual candidates. The first seat is awarded to the party or coalition with a plurality of votes. But the first- place party list must receive twice the vote of the second-place list, if it is to win the second seat. This means that in a two-list contest a party can obtain one seat with only 33.4 percent of the vote, whereas a party must take 66.7 percent of the vote to gain both seats. Any electoral support that the largest party gets beyond the 33.4 percent threshold is effectively wasted unless that party attains the 66.7 percent level.

The designers of the electoral system considered the worst-case scenario to be one that assumed a complete unity of purpose among the anti-Pinochet forces, a unity that would at best provide them with 50 percent of Congress. Government officials were convinced that another scenario was more likely: the parties of the centerleft would soon fragment, unable to maintain the unity born of their common desire to defeat Pinochet. The military government envisioned multiple lists, with the list of the right being the largest, able to double the next competing list in many constituencies and thus assuring the promilitary groups at least half of all elected representation, if not a comfortable majority.

For the parties of the right, the worst-case scenario came to pass. Showing remarkable focus and discipline, the fourteen parties of the opposition structured a common list and chose a common presidential candidate, and as a result the coalition garnered a majority of the elected seats. The binomial electoral system did, however, benefit the right. The National Renewal Party obtained many more seats than it should have in light of the percentages of the vote it received nationally. The system also forced parties to coalesce into large blocs to maximize their strengths. The result was two broad coalitions, not a two-party system. Indeed, the results of the 1989 congressional elections, despite the requirements of the binomial system and the constitution that broad slates be formed by these party coalitions, reveals that the Chilean electorate split its vote for individual candidates in a manner reminiscent of traditional tendencies. Thus, the right obtained 38 percent of the vote; the center, 24 percent; and the left 24.3 percent.

Survey research corroborated that the electorate was likely to continue to identify with left-right terms of reference. In March 1993, about 22.8 percent of respondents classified themselves as politically right or center-right; 24.6 percent as center; and 33.7 percent as center-left. Only 19 percent refused to opt for an ideological identification. These figures differ somewhat from the electoral results reported previously but are consistent with trends indicating that the right lost some of its appeal during the Aylwin government, while the moderate left gained.

Despite attempts at political engineering, not only did Chileans continue to identify with broad ideological tendencies, they also identified with a wide range of parties explicitly considered to embody those tendencies. In surveys, between 70 percent and 80 percent of all Chileans identified themselves with particular parties, a high level considering the many years of military rule and the experience of other democratic countries. Identification with individual parties increased during the first three years of the Aylwin government. In the March 1993 survey, more than a third of the respondents identified themselves with the Christian Democrats, 20 percent with the leading parties of the left, and 20 percent with the principal parties of the right. The rest identified themselves with smaller parties of the left, center, and right.

The survey findings do not mean that the ideological polarization of the past has remained constant. The Chilean electorate still segments itself into three roughly equal thirds, but the distance between its left and right extremes have narrowed substantially. With its more radical program, the PCCh was not able to win more than 6.5 percent of the vote in municipal elections. In surveys taken during the 1990-93 period, fewer than 2 percent of respondents preferred the PCCh. Right-wing nationalist parties associated with the military government had even less appeal and did not ever register on surveys. The far left of the Socialist Party had lost ground to the more moderate tendencies of the party, and the authoritarian right had developed no significant electoral following. Ideological moderation also characterized the centrist Christian Democrats, who no longer defended the "third way" between Marxists and capitalists that they advocated in the 1960s. Perhaps the strongest indication of programmatic moderation was the consensus in postmilitary Chile on free-market economics and the important role of the private sector in national development.

As Chile approached the twenty-first century, differences among parties were no longer based on sharply differing visions of utopias. Ideological differences now concerned more concrete matters, such as the degree of government involvement in social services and welfare or, increasingly, moral questions such as divorce and abortion. A narrowing of programmatic differences did not mean, however, that the intensely competitive, multiparty nature of Chilean politics was likely to change in the near future.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress