After a marathon 20-hour session on Wednesday, January 14, the Chilean Senate approved reform to an electoral system that dates back to the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The objective is to increase the number of deputies and senators, and change the voting mechanism from binomial to proportional.
The initiative, passed with the votes of the governing New Majority coalition and two members of the opposing Alliance, must now be approved by the Chamber of Deputies before it becomes law.
“This allows us to take a huge leap forward for our democracy,” said Interior Minister Rodrigo Peñailillo after the vote. “After 25 years, we can be done with an electoral system which is unique in the world, and which has caused huge damage to Chilean democracy.”
Peñailillo also contends that the new electoral system will open the door to new political movements, predicting that the changes would lead to “a clear majority that expresses itself, and a minority which is necessary in every democracy.” He also said that the current binomial system “tends to support” the existence of two major electoral blocs.
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet of the Socialist Party (PS) has also greeted the reform with enthusiasm, saying that it would allow for “greater representation, and more and better ideas in parliament.” Bachelet argues that the initiative represents a long-awaited desire by the Chilean people and is necessary “to renew the country’s politics.”
The proposal seeks to eliminate the binomial system, in which two seats are chosen from each electoral district. The current system also requires candidates to run in electoral pacts, which can only take both seats if they double the vote of their nearest opponent. Critics say that the system, which was established in 1989 in the final years of the Pinochet dictatorship, excludes political parties from outside the major coalitions and artificially equalizes the vote.
The binomial system will be replaced by a proportional D’Hondt method, a mechanism that assigns electoral seats in proportion to the number of votes cast for each individual candidate.
“Today we return to the tradition of this country: a representative and proportional system,” said Juan Pablo Letelier, also of the Socialist Party. “This hard-won achievement is the beginning of a new era, and marks the end to one of the most disastrous inheritances of the dictatorship.”
With the new proportional system, the next set of elections in 2017 will also increase the number of seats in the Senate by 12, and the number of deputies to 35 — bringing their total to 50 and 155 respectively.
Supporters of the project believe that the Chamber of Deputies is likely to approve it with ease, given the government majority in the lower house.
“We feel tremendously proud to say that we’ve achieved something so historic after 25 years,” said Isabel Allende, president of the Senate.
The new law also imposes a quota for both genders among those running for Congress: “Of the total number of candidates running to be senators or deputies declared by the parties, in an electoral pact or not, neither male nor female candidates can make up over 60 percent of the total.”
La derecha paso 25 años defendiendo el Binominal. Hace de todo para alargar la discusión. Hoy nada impedirá decir #ChaoBinominal
— Ricardo Lagos Weber (@lagosweber) January 14, 2015
An Anti-Constitutional Reform?
Among the fiercest opponents of the changes is Hernán Larraín, a senator with the Independent Democratic Union (UDI). He argues that the proposal was both “unfair” and “constitutionally inadmissible.”
The senator further criticized the greater levels of state spending the change is set to involve, and the “distribution of seats” that would result from the new law.
“Unfortunately we’ve lost a huge opportunity to make a change that we can all share, and an agreement between all political sectors … but we’ve ended up approving a mediocre project that will weaken our institutions. The proposal, through the allocation of districts, will give the New Majority around 10 new parliamentarians, and this is grotesque,” Larraín told reporters after the vote.
Andrés Barrientos, a member of the Ciudadano Austral (Southern Citizen) think-thank, told the PanAm Post that the new system will degrade the equality of the vote, since citizen’s votes in marginal electoral districts would be worth more than those in districts with a strong majority for either party.
Barrientos also has concerns with the cost of the reforms and the ability of proportionally elected governments to govern effectively.
“It seems worrying that they’re going to increase the number of deputies from 120 to 154, which is practically an entire chamber more, and this will all be funded by taxpayers. I also believe that while majoritarian systems favor cross-party agreements, proportional systems, like the one we’re changing to now, don’t: a few individuals will hold the key to negotiations,” Barrientos said.
Translated by Laurie Blair. Edited by Fergus Hodgson.