Regional and Local Government

Chile Table of Contents

With the adoption of the constitution of 1833, Chile abandoned earlier attempts to create a federal system and opted for a unitary form of government. As such, regional and local governments became creatures of national authority, subject to the legislative and constitutional powers vested in the central government. This did not mean that local governments did not enjoy varying degrees of self-determination and autonomy over the years. The 1833 document provided for the election of local municipal councils through direct popular vote, a practice retained by the constitution of 1925. During much of the nineteenth century, local governments were barely able to provide the minimal services they were charged with, such as the maintenance of public order and basic sanitation, given the scarcity of resources. In 1891, however, the country embarked on a bold experiment, providing significant local autonomy to the nation's elected municipalities, many of which flourished under local leadership with local resources. The center of gravity of Chilean politics shifted toward local governments and their allies in Congress.

Partly in reaction to the corrupt machine politics of the city bosses, the 1925 constitution sought greater oversight of local authorities by expanding the democratic process through the creation of elected provincial assemblies. However, enabling legislation that would have made those assemblies a reality was never adopted. Instead, the oversight functions were turned over to appointed agents of the central government. During the dramatic expansion of the national state in the wake of the Great Depression, local governments were left behind. Tax revenues, which by law were supposed to be returned to local governments, were routinely kept by the authorities of the central government. The essence of local politics became a struggle to use party and patronage networks to extract resources on a preferential basis for local development. As the nation's electorate expanded, local government officials played an increasingly important role as electoral agents. Mayors and councilors became political brokers seeking to exchange votes for a water treatment plant, a stretch of highway, or jobs for constituents. Elections for local office were as hotly contested as elections for national office and served as building blocks of party development.

The military regime viewed the somewhat fractious state of local politics as proof that parties and politicians were incapable of efficient administration. As a result, it designed a system of local administration distinctly based on corporatism and heavily dependent on direct appointments from the center. According to the constitution of 1980, regional and local governments would be administered by intendants and mayors, respectively. These figures would be appointed directly by the president of the republic, although the mayors of smaller towns would be designated by regional councils created to advise the intendants. The regional councils would be formed by employees of state agencies in the locality, military officers, and designated representatives of interest groups with no party affiliation. This conception of regional government would be extended to the municipal level with similarly designated local councils.

Although this scheme would make local authorities highly dependent on appointments from above, the military government also took an important step to decentralize state functions by giving local administrative units greatly increased resources and autonomy to make local governments viable. A notable example was the decision to give municipal governments far more responsibility for elementary and secondary education and other local services.

The Aylwin government made the restoration of democracy at the grass-roots level a matter of high priority. Many opposition leaders on the right shared the view that the military regime had gone too far in eradicating the country's long tradition of elected local governments. After considerable debate, the government and the National Renewal party were able to reach consensus on a constitutional reform law, adopted in November 1991, to change Chapter 13 of the constitution dealing with local administration (Law 19,097).

The constitutional reform was followed by the adoption of a new Organic Constitutional Law on Municipalities (Law 19,130 of March 19, 1992), which paved the way for municipal elections in June 1992. Under the law, local governments are formed by a municipal council and a mayor who serve four-year terms and are elected through a proportional representation system. Candidates must be sponsored by registered political parties that obtained at least 5 percent of the vote in previous contests. The number of councilors varies, from six in smaller municipalities to ten in the larger ones. The law establishes that the councilor who receives the most votes on the party list that receives the largest number of votes is elected mayor, provided that he or she obtains at least 35 percent of the total vote. If this requirement is not met, the mayor is elected by the municipal council from among its own number by an absolute majority of the vote. The Organic Constitutional Law on Municipalities requires that the mayor and councilors be citizens in good standing, reside in the region where they are running for office, and be literate. It bars government officials and members of Congress from running for local office. It is the mayor's responsibility to propose a communal plan, a budget, investment programs, and zoning plans to the municipal council for approval. The mayor also appoints delegates to remote areas of the community. The municipal council approves local ordinances and regulations and oversees the work of the mayor, being authorized to call to the attention of the comptroller general any irregularities.

Municipalities have sole responsibility for traffic regulation, urban planning and zoning, garbage collection, and beautification. Municipal governments work closely with state agencies on a host of other matters, ranging from public health to tourism, recreation, and education, and are authorized to create administrative units to oversee each of these activities. Most of the municipal resources come from the Common Municipal Fund, administered by the Ministry of Interior, which endeavors to favor poorer areas in the distribution of resources for local government. The law on municipalities also calls for the creation of an economic and social council in each municipality. This is an advisory body constituted by representatives of local organized groups, including neighborhood associations and functional organizations, such as parent-teacher associations and mothers' groups.

On June 23, 1992, 6.4 million Chileans (90 percent of the nation's registered voters) participated in Chile's first municipal elections since 1971. As was done in the congressional elections of 1989, joint lists designed to maximize electoral fortunes were formed by both the progovernment and the antigovernment parties. The results of the municipal contests did not deviate substantially from those observed in the earlier race. The CPD obtained 60.6 percent of the vote, to the right's 30 percent (38 percent if the independent Union of the Centrist Center [Unión de Centro Centro-- UCC] is counted with the right).

Nationwide elections for the country's thirteen regional councils were held in April 1993. The CPD won the majority of the thirteen regions. Of the total of 244 regional council members elected nationwide, 134 were CPD candidates and eighty-six were candidates of the opposition parties of the right. Another thirteen seats went to independent candidates or those from other parties. A tie resulted only in the sparsely populated Aisén del General Carlos Ibáñez del Campo Region in the far south, where the government and the opposition each won eight council seats.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress