Chile aims to end dictatorship-era election rules

AP News
Posted: Apr 23, 2014 7:30 PM

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — President Michelle Bachelet is determined to make Chile's democracy more representative, and for the first time in a quarter century, there may be just enough votes in Congress to achieve it.

Bachelet wants to end an electoral system that has squeezed out independent candidates and guaranteed an outsized presence in Congress for the center-right coalition ever since the end of the 17-year dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet in 1990.

The system distorts the vote by giving half the seats in each district to the trailing coalition as long as it gets at least a third of the votes. In practice, that has meant many elections are decided behind closed doors, with the center-left and center-right blocs hand-picking candidates to ensure neither side will get its way in Congress.

Pinochet also did away with proportional districts, which denied equal representation for people living in Chile's biggest cities.

"Let's call things what they are: The binomial system is a thorn pounded into the center of our democracy. It's a system that owes its life to the dictatorship and that has perpetuated itself through exclusion," Bachelet said Wednesday as she signed the proposal, which now will be debated in Congress.

Bachelet's proposal also would increase the number of deputies from 120 to 154 and the number of senators from 38 to 50, assigning seats according to population figures, rather than only regions.

"It's not possible that the most populated areas choose the same number of representatives as the least populated sectors. This makes it essential to increase our representatives," she said. Bachelet, who first served as president in 2006-10, expanded the center-left's traditional coalition by bringing in Communist Party members and independents ahead of her landslide victory last year. The center-right coalition has splintered in the wake of its defeat, with several of its members crossing over recently to support key measures, including a constitutional change approved Tuesday that extends voting rights to Chileans living outside the country.

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Just five weeks into her presidency, Bachelet can count on 21 senators and 71 deputies within her coalition, and needs just two more Senate votes and one more House vote to push through this more profound electoral reform.

Still, the debate in Congress promises to be long and complex.

More than a few lawmakers are against increasing the legislature's size. Independent Sen. Carlos Bianchi said he'll vote against it because he feels Chile's sparsely populated northern deserts and frozen south would be underrepresented compared to greater Santiago. Deputy Gaspar Rivas of the center-right National Renovation party said the project seems "biased against the voice and votes of the regions."