Bye Bye Binomial: Chile Will Miss You

EspañolBy Raymundo Cox

After a 20-hour session, the Senate on Wednesday finally finished with Chile’s binomial electoral system. The governing coalition New Majority was true to its name, overriding the concerns of those parliamentarians who spoke up. The likely approval by the Chamber of Deputies will be the nail in the coffin of a system whose days have long been numbered since its creation in 1989 in the final years of the Pinochet dictatorship.

La presidenta Michelle Bachelet es defensora del cambio de régimen electoral en Chile (Foto:
President Michelle Bachelet has backed electoral reform in Chile from the beginning of her second term in office. (Michelle Bachelet)

This wasn’t a reform like President Michelle Bachelet’s recent changes to education or tax, which have an ostensible practical or ideological motivation. The passage of this law, by contrast, is due only to the political interests of a group which has the majority of seats.

One recurring argument in favor of the electoral reform was that “the binomial system was made to favor a particular political group.” But the cure which is currently being cooked up has the very same objective: to benefit those politicians who are currently in power.

It would seem that the biggest problem with the binomial system is its origin. The political class seems unable to live with certain things which have been useful for the country if they were created in a certain period of history. Many now believe that everything created by the dictatorship was bad. Ideology leaves many blind, preventing them from seeing that there are things that can be salvaged from the past which have been essential to Chilean development, the binomial system among them.

This electoral system has been in force since 1989, and has proven itself to be a great tool for democracy. It fosters political stability and largely promotes the wide representation of the entire political spectrum, and not just the few.

The binomial mechanism has moderated political coalitions and helped forge consensus. It’s helped set Chile on the road to prosperity; the past 25 years have been no mere accident. In sum, the binomial system has forced our political leaders to make cross-party agreements that have benefited everyone. And now, motivated by ideology, they want to scrap the system.

The other element of the current electoral reform is the redistribution and increase in the number of parliamentarians, measures which have not been conceived with the best interests of the country in mind. The logic of reaching agreements between parliamentarians has been cast to one side in the quest for heedless change.

The new system of redistribution comes with the aim of securing a new group of parliamentarians. Do we really want more individuals legislating over our lives? The increase comes with the justification of securing “equality of the vote” (or the closest that can be achieved), but the way they want to carry this out lacks a fundamental, clear logic. The only thing that’s clear is that the way this reform will be executed will respond to political interests before those of Chile and the electorate.

It’s not only political fairness at stake, but also the process of regional development and decentralization that Chile so sorely needs. A redistribution of seats of the kind envisaged will see greater weight given to larger cities, while smaller towns are stripped of their representatives. This is, in the understated words of Senator Ena von Baer, “a shame.”

The debates around this reform could end up jeopardizing the country’s future. Unless the government corrects the inconsistencies and begins working for the country and not for its politicians, the future of Chile’s representative institutions looks bleak. Maybe this will prove the beginning of Chilean neopopulism. We are, perhaps, witnessing the return to the past, and reliving its failed experiments.

Raymundo Cox is an Analyst with Círculo Acton Chile.

Translated by Laurie Blair.

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