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A Parley for Parliament: Exploring System Change in Chile’s New Constitution

Chilean pro-democracy activists once used the slogan “La alegria ya viene” [“Happiness is coming”] to protest against the brutal dictator Augosto Pinochet, who left office in 1990. Thirty years later, some say that happiness has come—but mostly for the wealthy elite

After a year of widespread, often violent, protests last month, the Chilean people voted overwhelmingly in favor of rewriting their constitution to address the country’s stark economic and social inequalities. In 1980, Pinochet drafted and imposed the current constitution, which some claim over-represents the rights and privileges the interests of the wealthy throughout the political process. For instance, Pinochet’s constitution still prohibits leaders of labor unions or local community associations from running for office. The standing constitution also prevents the legislature from majorly reforming the public healthcare system, and is the only constitution in the world to enshrine water privatization. The vote marks a new chapter in Chilean history, and the beginning of the end for Pinochet’s legacy. However, now that the old constitution is on its way out, one question remains wide open: what will replace it?

Chile should take this historic opportunity to become the first Latin American country to install a parliamentary system. A parliament would not only help address its current woes, but also make Chile a pioneer for other countries in the region to experiment with institutional change. A semi-presidential system is also possible, in which a directly elected president shares executive power with a prime minister. As of now, however, every country in Latin America has a presidential system, one which was historically influenced by the example the United States set. At the time that Latin American states were emerging, parliamentarism was not as fully realized as it is today. Once presidentialism and its associated political culture had been established, it was difficult to change. However, Latin America did stray away from the U.S. example by strengthening the president’s powers in order to prevent deadlock with the legislature. But after the region’s struggles with weak legislatures, strong-arm presidents, and an unstable democracy, some Latin American political scholars have made compelling arguments for switching to a parliamentary system, similar to the one that Europe exemplified.  

Parliamentary systems have several benefits. For one, they curb the gridlock commonly found between presidents and legislatures because the prime minister is elected by the legislature and tends to share its agenda. The gridlock found in presidential systems not only stalls progress, but has historically caused certain presidents to overreach their authority or give up on constitutionalism altogether. One famous example of this is Hugo Chavez, whose descent into authoritarianism can largely be traced to his hostile competition with the legislature. 

Secondly, parliamentary systems allow legislators to remove the executive with a vote of no confidence if the executive proves incapable of dealing with new circumstances or loses the support of the people. Presidents, by contrast, are elected to rigidly defined terms during which they maintain power regardless of new events. Thirdly, parliaments disincentivize the political polarization that can grow into widespread upheaval. Instead, parties are forced to build coalitions and cooperate to appoint the prime minister by a majority of seats. 

Chile has experienced this polarization before, when far-left president Salvador Allende was elected with only 36 percent of the vote. His radical reforms caused the economy to tank, which directly led to the coup that brought Pinochet to power. An election by such a low plurality is only possible under a presidential system. Now, even after instituting a run-off round of voting in elections to ensure the winner gets a majority, Chile once again has a wildly unpopular president. President Piñera’s approval rating dropped as low as six percent in January, and has struggled to recover since. 

As a prime minister, Piñera might have received a vote of no confidence by now. However, since parliamentarism prevents the concentration of power in the hands of a single executive, it might also help fix the current “hyper-presidential” Chilean system. As it stands, members of the Chamber of Deputies may not propose tax or spending bills, and the president decides which bills under consideration have priority. However, if the new constitution puts the president and legislature on a more level playing field, it will risk more deadlock, and potentially more public discontent. Presidentialism’s combination of rigid terms and power concentrated in a single person has now evidently turned discontent into revolt, as people are not content to simply “wait for the next election.” 

Of course, there are serious obstacles toward Chile adopting a parliamentary system. Presidentialism does have its benefits, such as the executive’s fixed terms in office, which supporters say promotes stability. However, like European countries, Chile has a strong enough history of trust in government (present times notwithstanding) that the system would not be destabilized by more frequent changing of the executive. Chileans tend to trust their system enough that democracy itself would not be threatened every time the prime minister is.

In addition, Chile would become a role model for the region. In Latin America between 1985 and 2008, there have been about 36 impeachments and other presidential crises. Unlike a vote of no confidence, an impeachment is based on a (real or imagined) crime, and therefore erodes the government’s legitimacy. While Chile has not seen a president impeached yet, if it modeled a parliamentary regime, other Latin American countries that have had this problem may follow suit. Under parliamentary systems, normalized votes of no confidence would replace these constant destabilizing crises, and democracy itself would continue.

Another obstacle is whether Chile’s people would actually accept a parliamentary or semi-parliamentary system. Similar moves have been proposed twice before, once in Brazil in 1993, and another in Argentina in the mid-1980s. In Brazil, the proposition failed because average voters wanted to keep the ability to directly elect the executive rather than let legislators do it for them. Brazilians were especially suspicious of its parties, believing them to be largely corrupt and unrepresentative. Chileans might have some similar issues, but the country has historically demonstrated far fewer issues with corruption and more trust in parties than Brazil. 

In Argentina, the top two parties were quite close to rallying the people around a constitutional amendment for a semi-parliamentary system, until the Peronists abandoned ship when it was projected that they might win the next presidential election. This is much less likely to happen in Chile, where constitutional delegates will still be hammering out the constitution during the next election. After these previous defeats, system change is not by any means first on the agenda in Chile. However, just a few years ago, Chile had very low odds of rewriting its constitution at all. As long as there continues to be discussion about parliamentarism; it is far from a lost cause. 

Of course, governmental institutions alone cannot guarantee an effective, stable democracy anywhere. Even proponents of parliamentary systems admit that there are plenty of examples of parliamentary regimes dissolving into chaos or authoritarianism. However, this does not change the fact that, on balance, parliamentary systems have been more stable, effective, and representative than their presidential counterparts throughout history

Under a parliamentary arrangement, an unpopular executive or polarized parties would be less likely to get in the way of the social and economic reform that Chileans demand. The nation has enough upheaval to push the government to experiment with new institutions, and enough political stability to keep those institutions secure. Now that Chileans have initiated broad changes in government, there is no reason it cannot also lead the region in establishing a more appropriate and dynamic system of government. Both the future of Chile, and the future of Latin America as a whole, would benefit from it.

Image via Flickr (Addy Cameron-Huff)

About the Author

Indigo Funk '22 is a Staff Writer for the US Section of the Brown Political Review. Indigo can be reached at indigo_funk@brown.edu

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