Voices & Choices

Chilean President Takes Aim at Dictatorship-Era Constitution, Passes Fairer System

Chilean President Takes Aim at Dictatorship-Era Constitution, Passes Fairer System
By Charlie Hunt
In January, Chile took significant steps in pursuit of more democratic elections, as the National Congress passed sweeping changes to the country’s electoral system. Key among the improvements, promised by President Michelle Bachelet when she took office in March 2014, is a change from the existing “binomial system” to a system of proportional representation (PR) to elect the Chilean National Congress. In the past, conservatives like former president Sebastián Piñera have often dismissed reform efforts with claims that Chile had “other more urgent priorities.”  This January, however, reform passed easily though both houses of the congress, and will come into effect in time for elections in 2017.

The binomial system is similar to limited voting systems, as each voter gets one vote in two-winner districts. The system differs from limited voting in that the top two vote getters are not necessarily elected into office. A party may win both seats in a district only if its two candidates (each party is allowed to run a maximum of two candidates per seat) receive at least twice as many total votes as the two candidates of the next best performing party.

On the positive side, the binomial system cracks the winner-take-all principle. No party will elect two candidates in a district unless it can reliably secure more than two-thirds of the vote. The binomial system prevents the disproportionate majorities associated with winner-take-all and, in a two-party system, facilitates representation of the minority party. It also elects representatives of the major parties from districts throughout the country, instead of only those where they happen to be in the majority, giving a voice to many voters who do not support the party that is dominant in their area.

On the negative side, the binomial system cannot be discussed without reference to its origins. Adopted in the dying days of his regime, former dictator Augusto Pinochet established the system, devised in communist Poland, in an attempt mitigate losses to like-minded conservatives. Its operation has also been controversial. In practice, the system often elected a third placed candidate to the second seat over the second placed candidate, resulting in the overrepresentation of the minority party. Like winner-take-all systems, the binomial system has entrenched two political parties, while underrepresenting small parties. Reform advocates, including former president Ricardo Lagos, insist that the binomial system limited political dynamism in Chile and, compared with PR, severely reduced the choices available to Chilean voters.

The Bachelet administration developed its PR reform proposal using Chile’s municipal elections, which already take place under a system of PR, as a model. The reform increases the size of the National Congress and introduces a party-list form of PR. In the Chamber of Deputies, each of the 27 newly-created districts will elect between three and eight members.

Administration officials say this system of PR will ensure that “majorities express themselves adequately.Others suggest that it will also reduce vote dilution in Santiago, the most significant metropolitan region in the country, and ensure that regional and small minorities, long locked-out of the political system, will gain representation.

The experiences of other nations that have adopted forms of PR suggestthat these assertions are well-founded. Proportional representation systems tend to uphold the principle of majority rule, negate the impact of vote dilution, and ensure that ethnic, political, and other minorities can win their fair share of representation. While American voters might prefer fair representation voting systems – proportional systems in which voters vote for candidates, and that are consistent with American political traditions – Chile’s new party-list system will ensure that the will of the country’s voters is reflected in the National Congress better than ever before.

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