Is Chile Finally Completing Its Transition To Democracy?

By: Clément Doleac, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, and Kate Sopcich, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Encountering the street or metro station 11 de Septiembre in Santiago may come as a surprise to some tourists visiting Chile. But this date is not merely the tragic anniversary of a wanton terrorist attack on the United States; it is also the anniversary of the 1973 military coup of President Salvador Allende. The CIA-backed operation to overthrow the socialist president was a preventative measure erroneously taken against the spread of communism in the Western hemisphere. Legacies of General Augusto Pinochet’s nearly 20-year regime continue to repress the people of Chile via the Constitution. Although the country has made significant advancements in its transition to democratic rule, right-wing supporters of the dictatorship remain powerful, posing a threat to effective constitutional reform.

However, despite the interrupting term of conservative President Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014), the executive has maintained center-left rule with the dominant coalition, the Concertación. Previously elected president in 2006, following her distinguished position as head of UN Women Michelle Bachelet was reelected for the 2014 presidential term. Supremely qualified, and reputably socialist, Bachelet vows to complete the country’s transition to democracy with social, educational, economic, and constitutional reforms. However, Bachelet is one year into her second term and in her fifth year as president; many eagerly await, both domestically and internationally, for President Bachelet to follow through on her ambitious promises.

The Concertación’s Failure to Instigate Reform

The end of Pinochet’s regime did not come until 1990, following a plebiscite call issued by the dictator himself. Respective “Sí” and “No” campaigns for the October 5, 1988 vote took the society by storm as the country found itself facing questions of identity and morality.1 During the campaigns, the right and the left were afforded the opportunity to redefine themselves and their ideals. The Concertación was formed largely in part to present a firm opposition to the dictatorship, and took advantage of the international pressure exerted on Pinochet. This coalition was comprised by several center and left-wing parties such as the Socialist Party of Chile (Partido Socialista de Chile, or PS), created in 1933, the Christian Democratic Party of Chile (Partido Demócrata Cristiano de Chile, or DC), created in 1957, the Party for Democracy (Partido por la Democracia, or PPD), created in 1987 and the Radical Social-Democrat Party (Partido Radical Socialdemócrata, or PRSD) created in 1994.

As previously mentioned, the only right wing government since 1990 was that of Sebastian Piñera (2010-2014), who won the elections due to deception provoked by the Concertación among the working class and the popular sector of Chilean society. This deception was caused by the inability of the Concertación to effectively reform the conservative Constitution erected by Augusto Pinochet’s regime, leading to the failure to reduce poverty and inequality in Chile, one of the most unequal country of Latin America, even if one of the richest. Several shadows of Pinochet’s era remain, such as the elitist, exclusive, and expensive private education system, severe inequality, and the restriction of women’s rights. The transition to democracy has been slow and continues to be incomplete.2 One of the legacies of the Pinochet regime found in the Constitution is the “byzantine electoral system… that has effectively excluded parties that do no belong to one of two leading coalitions and prevented either coalition from winning a significant majority in Congress.”3 This voting system eventually led Congress to split into two, nearly equal blocks, thus prohibiting important constitutional reforms, which require a 2/3 or 3/4 majority vote.4 Additionally, the Concertación itself fell divided on progressive social reforms such as therapeutic abortion, same sex marriage, and widespread access to health and education. Because of a dominant Catholic influence in many of its members, the Christian Democratic party frequently fails to uphold leftist ideals concerning legislation that interferes with Catholic doctrine. A significant percentage of DC members have traditionally sided with their conservative opponents on such impassioned matters.5

The Return of the Opposition and Renewal of Left-Wing Parties

Sebastián Piñera’s term provoked an internal crisis amidst the Concertación, which dissolved in 2013 after a strong decline in the success rate for its policies among the electorate.6 Following the four-year breach on center-left political rule, the coalition chose to ally with the more radical left-wing parties originally excluded from the Concertación, such as the Communist Party of Chile (Partido Comunista de Chile, or PCCh) and the Christian Left (Izquierda Cristiana, or IC). In the 2012 municipal elections, two left-wing coalitions competed: Por un Chile Justo, which embraced the PPD, PCCh, PRSD and IC, and the Concertación Democrática, including the DC and PSC. The development of the two groups coincides with a strong increase in their vote base, from 45.13 percent to 49.46 percent.7 While the number of municipalities under left-wing administration increased from 147 to 167, the right-wing parties lost 23 municipalities, falling from 144 to 121.8 This improvement was primarily due to the addition of the Communist party to the left-wing coalition. After these elections, the Chilean public came to expect a left-leaning trend in the country’s politics.

Shortly after the collapse of the Concertación in 2013, The New Majority (Nueva Mayoría) was established in an effort to develop a new electoral compact. The entity was essentially created as a renovated approach for the 2013 presidential, parliamentarian and regional elections.9 This newly formulated coalition enjoys substantial support, comprised of the PS, the DC, the PPD, the PRSD, the PCCh, the IC and the Broad Social Movement (Movimiento Amplio Social, or MAS) as well as some independents from the center-left.10 The New Majority endorses the inclusion of more radically left-wing parties to the democratic center-left coalition in order to appease the Chilean working class and popular sectors.11

The political arena in Chile demonstrates the effectiveness of a left-wing coalition focused on the popular sector. In the 2013 presidential election, the New Majority candidate, Michelle Bachelet, obtained nearly 62.17 percent of the vote, more than 20 points over her conservative competitor, Ms. Evelyn Mathei (37.83 percent).12 Bachelet was reelected based on her promise to implement a progressive agenda.13 Pushed by more radically left-wing parties, specifically the PCCh, as well as important social movements and mass protests that were held from 2011 to 2013, Bachelet promised a more ambitious political agenda. Throughout her campaign, and following a historic, landslide victory, she promised to tackle inequality, reform education and Pinochet’s strained electoral system, promote a new tax program, and advance the status of sexual and reproductive and rights.14 After Bachelet’s triumphant victory in the 2013 presidential elections, Chileans’ expectations were high for constitutional reform: which would be a necessary progression for the current, dictatorship-tarnished Constitution.15

Bachelet’s Struggle For Transition: Tax, Electoral, Education, and Constitutional Reform

The Bachelet Administration, as promised, has successfully executed several bold initiatives in the past year. On September 10, 2014, Chile’s Congress approved an ambitious tax reform bill as a key part of the government tax-and-spend campaign focused on reducing inequality. This bill will raise corporate taxes as well as reduce tax exemptions. The extra federal income squeezed from the reform will be equivalent to 3 percent of Chile’s GDP by 2018, revenue that is needed to finance ambitious plans for education and social reforms.16 The extra funds are expected to amount to around $8 billion USD.17 The enactment of the tax reform has been widely endorsed, enjoying support from Finance Minister Alberto Arenas, who remarked that the “emblematic tax reform of President Bachelet.. will allow us to sustainably finance the other reforms.”18

Also on January 14, 2015, the Senate approved Bachelet’s electoral reform bill, thanks to the support of two opposition senators. The bill will likely pass with ease in the lower house and will eventually be enshrined in the Constitution.19 Interior Minister Rodrigo Peñailillo stated this development “allows us, after 25 years, to do away with an electoral system not used anywhere else in the world and which, of course, did a lot of damage to Chilean democracy.”20 Additionally, president of the Senate, Isabel Allende, expressed her satisfaction in noting that she is “hugely proud to be able to say that we have achieved something historic after 25 years.”21

After eight months of debate, the Chilean Lower House approved the first part of the long-awaited education reform on January 26, 2015. With the goal of fixing the expensive, unequal, and exclusive education system in the country, the initiative will terminate for-profit, state-subsidized schools and their notoriously selective acceptance policies.22 Furthermore, the measure aims to strengthen public colleges, increase the number and amount of available scholarships, and centralize schools to encourage a degree of uniformity throughout the education system, an important step in reducing Chilean education inequality. It also answers to the massive students movements, the famous “pinguinos”, which have occurred over the last 4 years, but mainly in 2011 and 2013. Education Minister Nicolas Eyzaguirre proudly remarked that the government of Chile is now finally putting an end to the “set of illegitimate bases put in place during the dictatorship, behind the nation’s back, and… [is] recover[ing] Chile’s historic tradition and… best practices in the world.”23

A Gender-Emphasized Agenda

Although an outspoken feminist and active advocate for the advancement of women’s rights, Bachelet’s full capacity still remains at the mercy of the Chilean Congress. During her initial term as president, many were dismayed regarding her failure to execute a feminist agenda, doubting her legitimacy as a competent female leader to advocate for women’s rights. However, correlating with incremental growth of social liberalization, and the increasing pragmatism of politicians on gender-equality issues, Bachelet has begun to made marked headway in her agenda.

In the plan of action for her first 100 days in office, three of fifty goals pertained to gender equality: a bill to create the Ministry of Women, the implementation of 24 new women’s shelters (doubling the current number), and the program Más Sonrisas para Chile (More Smiles for Chile), that will assist 400,000 women in dental recuperation to help them find work and boost their self-esteem.24

On May 16, 2014, Bachelet initiated the Más Sonrisas para Chile program. However, due to decentralization, implementation of the program requires a signed agreement between the mayor of the community and the director of the Health Service.25

In the southern city of Puerto Montt on April 22, 2014, President Bachelet announced the beginning of the installation of 24 new women’s shelters, completing the third gender-oriented goal. Essentially, the houses offer protection to survivors of domestic violence. Apart from shelter, food, and basic medical services, the houses offer psychosocial and judicial support, aid in developing personal autonomy, life planning services, and educational and occupational coordination.26

On January 28, 2015, Congress unanimously voted to enact the Ministry of Women and Gender Equality (El Ministerio de la Mujer y la Equidad de Género). The entity was established in response to the shortcomings of the initial governmental institution designed to serve the interests of Chilean women, the National Women’s Service (Servicio Nacional de la Mujer, or SERNAM). SERNAM was created 24 years earlier under the rule of the Concertación, but religious influences amongst its constituents, particularly the opposition from the nation’s Catholic Church, prohibited the body’s ultimate efficiency. In her speech following the bill’s approval, Bachelet emphasized the fact that social and gender reforms share the same objective, that is, to reduce inequality and poverty. She stated: “We are implementing this program of economic, social, and political transformations… because, as we know, the major economic, political, social, and cultural inequalities in our country affect women.”27 The Ministry will “design, coordinate, and evaluate the policies, plans, and programs to promote gender equality and try to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women.” Bachelet has also announced special funding for the new government entity derived from the expected revenue from the approved tax reform.28

Additionally on January 28, Chile’s Congress approved the country’s first law to authorize the civil unions of gay and lesbian couples.29 Home to a notoriously Catholic-influenced, socially conservative society, this legislative progression is incredibly significant given the historically negative attitudes towards sexual rights in the country.

Somewhat of a dialectical contradiction exists in Chile regarding abortion legislation, as it had previously been legal in Chile from 1931-1989. General Augusto Pinochet maliciously criminalized abortion in all circumstances as one of his final legislative moves as dictator.30 Due to this unfortunately timed action, the Constitution remains tainted by the dictatorship, effectively oppressing the country’s women despite general trends of progression in other areas.

Because sexual and reproductive rights have consistently been a point of contention in Chile, it is no surprise that Michele Bachelet did not attempt to address any weighty, progressive legislation related to the matter in her first 50 goals, nor in her initial term as president. But finally, in her sixth year as president, she is pushing forward on the controversial discrepancies in the area of sexual and reproductive rights.

As Minister of Health, prior to her presidency, Bachelet authorized the distribution of free emergency contraception at public hospitals.31 She has frequently expressed her support of therapeutic abortion, and made it clear in her presidential address on May 21, 2014 that she intends to definitively decriminalize the procedure during her current term.32 On January 31, 2015, the therapeutic abortion bill was sent to Congress, and now faces unpredictable results.33 The legislation specifically proposes to decriminalize abortion in the case of rape, risk of life to the mother, and an unviable fetus. Additionally, the procedure must be carried out within the first 12 weeks of gestation and requires the medical opinion of at least two medical professionals.34

What Remains?

The government of Chile aims to improve the working conditions of the country’s educators, bring public schools under national jurisdiction in order to homogenize the education system, and completely subsidize university education, making it free to the public.35

President Bachelet has also announced a very ambitious reform of the labor code, which was originally implemented three decades ago by Augusto Pinochet. The new bill introduced by Bachelet seeks to address the balance of power between employers and their employees in the work place. For example, it will make representative union leaders the only ones authorized to negotiate wages. This bill will additionally protect the rights of workers during particularly vulnerable times, such as in the aftermath of a strike.36

Chile’s desire to diminish the wealth gap is largely motivated by its internationally elite reputation as a member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). At a whopping 0.51, Chile’s Gini coefficient exposes the country as the most unequal of all OECD member states.37 The labor, tax, and education reforms in Bachelet’s presidential plan are intended to reduce these embarrassingly high rates of inequality in Chile in order to gain much-needed socioeconomic equality and international respect.

Bachelet has exhibited a considerable degree of progress on her leftist agenda, but she continues to battle two strong elements of opposition. The first comes from distinctly neoliberal business leaders, who have expressed skepticism concerning a number of her initiatives. These actors perceive the reforms as “undermin[ing] an economic model of low spending and taxes, limited regulations, and high saving rates that have helped propel growth.” Additionally, the mining sector has demonstrated its doubts as copper is currently at its lowest rate on the market for four years, yet remains a critical income for the State. Chilean mining companies fear that Bachelet’s egalitarian labor reform could jeopardize important international investment prospects.38

Above all, the ultimate obstacle that Bachelet will continue to encounter throughout the next three years is the efficacy of the Chilean Congress. Due to sharp divisions on topics such as reproductive policy and educational reform within center-left parties, particularly the Democratic Christian Party, it is challenging for the executive to successfully push past the legislative impasse. Despite adamant and persistent declaration of her intent to implement lofty reforms with goals of progress for Chile, President Bachelet’s promises will remain dependent on legislative cooperation.

By: Clément Doleac, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, and Kate Sopcich, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: and Rights Action.

Featured image by: Alex Proimos, “The President of Chile, Verónica Michelle Bachelet Jeria”, on September 18th, 2009: Chile’s Independence Day

taken from:


1MOULIAN Tomas, Chile actual: anatomía de un mito, Santiago: LOM ediciones, 1997 ; MOULIAN Tomas, El consumo me consume, Santiago: LOM ediciones, 1999 ; MOULIAN Tomas, Contradicciones del desarrollo político chileno, 1920-1990, Santiago de Chile: LOM ediciones, 2009. A great fiction about the campaign for the transition in Chile is the movie “No”, Released on February 15, 2013 (USA), Director: Pablo Larraín.

2MOULIAN Tomas, Chile actual: anatomía de un mito, Santiago: LOM ediciones, 1997 ; MOULIAN Tomas, El consumo me consume, Santiago: LOM ediciones, 1999 ; MOULIAN Tomas, Contradicciones del desarrollo político chileno, 1920-1990, Santiago de Chile: LOM ediciones, 2009.

3“Chile to reform voting system, increase women in Congress” on Reuters, on wed Jan 14, 2015. Consulted on on february 5, 2015

4MOULIAN Tomas, Chile actual: anatomía de un mito, Santiago: LOM ediciones, 1997 ; MOULIAN Tomas, El consumo me consume, Santiago: LOM ediciones, 1999 ; MOULIAN Tomas, Contradicciones del desarrollo político chileno, 1920-1990, Santiago de Chile: LOM ediciones, 2009.

5SOPCICH Kate, “Abortion Law in Chile: Promises of Progress” on Council on Hemispheric Affairs, on January 28, 2015. Consutled on on February 5, 2015.

6“Concertación acordó mantener pacto durante gobierno de Piñera” on ADN Radio, on January 25, 2010. Consulted on on February 5, 2015.

7 “Partido Radical llamó a la DC a ratificar acuerdo municipal con el Partido Comunista” on Biochile, on April 23, 2012. Consulted on on February 5, 2015.

8«Patricio Navia: Derrota de la Democracia». La Tercera. 29 de octubre de 2012. Consulted on on February 5, 2015

9“Representantes de los abanderados de la oposición llegan al Servel para inscribir candidaturas”

La Tercera. 30 de abril de 2013. Consulted on on February 5, 2015.

10“Nueva Mayoría” se denominará pacto presidencial opositor para la primaria del 30 de junio”. Biobío. April 29, 2013. Consulted on on February 5, 2015.

11 “Osvaldo Andrade aseguró que la Concertación ya no existe y que ahora hay una “Nueva Mayoría””, CNN Chile, on August 12, 2013. Consulted on on February 5, 2015. ; “Camila Vallejo defiende incorporación del PC a Nueva Mayoría: “La Concertación está muerta””, in La Tercera, on August 19, 2013. Consulted on on February 5, 2015

12 The results can be consulted on consulted on February 5, 2015.

13REUTERS, “After Tax Reform Triumph, Chile’s President Faces Rockier Road” on Voice of America, on September 12, 2014. consulted on on february 5, 2015.

14 REUTERS, “After Tax Reform Triumph, Chile’s President Faces Rockier Road” on Voice of America, on September 12, 2014. consulted on on february 5, 2015. ; “Bachelet pledges radical constitutional reforms after winning Chilean election”, The Guardian, on December 16, 2013. Consulted on on February 5, 2015.

15 “Chile’s Bachelet prepares next phase of education reform” on Reuters, on January 27, 2015. Consulted on on February 5, 2015

16“Chile passes landmark tax reform into law”, on Reuters, on September 10, 2014. Consulted on on February 5, 2015.

17“Chile Congress Passes Tax Bill to Finance Free Education”, on Bloomberg Business, on September 10, 2014. Consulted on on February 5, 2015.

18“Chile passes landmark tax reform into law”, on Reuters, on September 10, 2014. Consulted on on February 5, 2015.

19“Chile to reform voting system, increase women in Congress”, on Reuters, on January 14, 2015. Consulted on on February 5, 2015 ; “ Chile: Senate Approves Electoral Reform” on The Argentina Independent, on January 14, 2015. Consulted on on February 5, 2015.



22“Chile’s Bachelet Prepares Next Phase of Education Reform” on Voice of America, on January 27, 2015. Consulted on on February 5, 2015.

23“Chile’s Bachelet prepares next phase of education reform” on Reuters, on January 27, 2015. Consulted on on February 5, 2015.

24BACHELET Michelle, “50 compromisos para mejorar la calidad de vida en el Chile de todos”, Santiago, Octubre 2013. Consulted on on February 5, 2015.

25“Presidenta Bachelet Presentó Programa.” Servicio Nacional de la Mujer: Gobierno de Chile. Published May 16, 2014. Consulted on on February 5, 2015.

26“Algunas Claves Para Entender las Casas de Acogida.” Gobierno de Chile. Published April 22, 2014. Consulted on on February 5, 2015.

27“Por Unanimidad se creó Ministrerio de la Mujer y la Equidad de Género.” Servicio Nacional de la Mujer: Gobierno de Chile. Published January 28, 2015. Consulted on on February 5, 2015.

28 Ibid.

29“Chile approves same-sex civil unions” on Jamaica Observer, on January 28, 2015. Consulted on on February 5, 2015.

30LIESL, Haas, Feminist Policy-making in Chile, University Park, PA, Pennsylvania State UP, 2010.

31ROHTER Larry, “Policy on Morning-After Pill Upsets Chile.” The New York Times. Published December 17, 2006. Consulted on on February 5, 2015.

32BACHELET, Michelle. “Mensaje Presidencial.” Published May 21, 2014. Consulted on on February 5, 2015.

33LEE Brianna, “Chile’s President Backs Law To Relax Abortion Restrictions” on International Business Times, on February 2, 2015. Consulted on on February 5, 2015.

34Camara de Diputados de Chile. “Proyectos de Ley.” Boletín No. 9.480-11 and 9.418-11. You can consult the document on

35 “Chile’s Bachelet prepares next phase of education reform” on Reuters, on January 27, 2015. Consulted on on February 5, 2015.

36 CRAZE Matt, “Chile Moves to Redistribute Copper Wealth Through Union Power” on Washington Post, on December 29, 2014. Consulted on ; “Chile’s Bachelet prepares next phase of education reform” on Reuters, on January 27, 2015. Consulted on on February 5, 2015.

37 “Government at a Glance: Country Fact Sheet: Chile.”, OECD, Published 2013. Consulted on February 5, 2015.

38 “Chile Moves to Reduce Inequality Through Union Power” on Bloomberg Business, on December 29, 2014. Consulted on on February 5, 2015.


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