The Presidency

Chile Table of Contents

The constitution of 1925 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. 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 constitution specifies 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 grants 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).

Ironically, although the CPD strongly criticized the disproportionate powers given to the president in the 1980 constitution, President Aylwin moved with determination to make full use of those very powers. The son of a middle-class family, whose father was a lawyer and judge and eventually president of the Supreme Court, Aylwin was born on November 26, 1918, in Viña del Mar. He studied law and had faculty appointments at the University of Chile and the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. In 1945 he joined the National Falange (Falange Nacional), the precursor of the PDC, which he helped form in 1957. A former senator, Aylwin served seven terms as president of the PDC, a position he held when he was nominated as the PDC's presidential candidate. In his work as spokesman for the multiparty opposition coalition, he displayed great skills as a conciliator, gaining the confidence of parties and leaders on the left, who had vehemently opposed his support for the overthrow of the Allende government. A man of deep religious conviction, humble demeanor, and unimpeachable honesty, Aylwin impressed friends and foes alike when he successfully negotiated the constitutional reforms of 1989.

As president, Aylwin surprised even his closest advisers with his firm leadership, particularly his willingness to stand up to Pinochet, who remained army commander. For instance, in a crucial meeting of Cosena, Aylwin challenged Pinochet on a matter directly related to the issue of presidential authority and received backing from the other military commanders for his position. Aylwin moved cautiously but firmly in dealing with the human rights abuses of the past, appointing a commission that officially acknowledged the crimes of the security forces. Subsequent legislation provided compensation for victims or their families, even if prosecution for most of those crimes appeared unlikely ever to take place.

The Aylwin government also took great pains to assure domestic and foreign investors of its intention to maintain the basic features of the free-market economic model. The CPD was keenly aware that it needed to retain the confidence of the national and international business communities and show the world that it too could manage economic policy with skill and responsibility. Indeed, by showing that Chile could manage its economic affairs in democracy, the government could provide an even more favorable economic climate, one not clouded by the political confrontations and potential instability of authoritarianism. The Aylwin government appeared to meet this objective, as the Chilean economy grew at an average rate of more than 6 percent from 1990 through 1993.

The Aylwin government was cautious in proposing constitutional reforms for fear of alienating the military and the opposition parties of the right, which controlled the Senate. The key constitutional reform, enacted on November 9, 1991, created democratically elected local governments by reestablishing elections for municipal mayors and council members. Additional reforms of the judicial system were also approved. Although it indicated its desire to change the electoral system and the nature of civil-military relations, the Aylwin government was unable to achieve those objectives.

The executive branch in Chile is composed of sixteen ministries with portfolio and four cabinet-level agencies--the Central Bank, the Production Development Corporation (Corfo), the National Women's Service (Servicio Nacional de la Mujer--Sernam), and the National Energy Commission (Comisión Nacional de Energía). Ministers serve exclusively at the president's discretion. Each ministry is required to articulate a series of firm objectives for each fiscal year, and the president uses these ministerial goals to judge the success of a particular department and minister. Every seven months, a formal evaluation (state of progress) is conducted to ascertain the progress of each ministry. The president writes a formal letter to each minister in January, evaluating the accomplishments or failures of the department in question. Cabinet officers have significant authority over their own agencies.

Although important in setting the overall priorities of the government and coordinating a uniform response to issues, cabinet meetings deal primarily with general subjects. Critical policy questions, however, are often addressed at the ministerial level by interministerial commissions dealing with specific substantive areas. These include infrastructural, development, economic, socioeconomic, and political issues. If there is no unanimity on a particular matter, the question goes to "the second floor" (the president's office) for final disposition. The president is kept closely apprised of all matters under discussion at all times by the secretary general of the presidency, who has the primary responsibility of coordinating the work of ministerial commissions. Under President Aylwin, that position was held by Edgardo Boeninger Kausel, a former rector of the University of Chile. Boeninger's success resulted not from the power of his position, which in formal terms is unimportant, but from his skills as a negotiator and consensus builder and from the willingness of the cabinet, composed of individuals from different parties, to work in a collegial fashion. This style of authority might slow decisions, but it has the advantage of averting serious conflicts and sparing the president from having to micromanage policy or serve as a constant referee. Aylwin's secretary general of the government, Enrique Correa Rios, the government's chief spokesman, also played a prominent role in projecting the government's image and serving as a bridge to political parties and opposition leaders.

In addition to the office of the secretary general of the presidency and secondary general of the government, two ministries had key roles in the Aylwin administration. The Ministry of Finance had virtual autonomy in formulating and guiding overall economic and budgetary policy. The Ministry of Interior, the principal "political ministry" of the government, was charged with law enforcement and with coordinating government policy with the parties of the CPD.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress