Biased Elections in Post-Dictatorship Chile: Has the 2015 Electoral Reform Done Enough?

By: Vincent Halloran, 2L

Recently inaugurated Chilean President Sebastián Piñera pictured shortly after receiving the presidential sash in Santiago beside outgoing President Michelle Bachelet in March 2018. (AFP Photo/Claudio Reyes)

In 2015, under the leadership of Pres. Michelle Bachelet, Chile undertook a dramatic electoral reform to address ideological bias and malapportionment endemic to its binomial legislative district model. Unique worldwide, many argue that Chile’s previous electoral system employed two-member legislative districts to preserve the neoliberal influence of the dictatorship and permanently disadvantage the political left. Arguably, the binomial system designed by General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorial regime before renewed democratic elections in 1989, not only advantaged Chile’s ascendant right, but also created lasting issues of regional malapportionment. While the 2015 electoral reform likely resolved lingering issues of ideological bias, Chile’s new proportional representation model has done little to address underlying regional malapportionment which persists as a challenge to Chilean democracy as key 2021 elections approach.

In Chile’s most recent general election in 2017, which saw Sebastián Piñera and his centre-right coalition win the first post-reform elections, the impact of the reform brought mixed results. While it is clear that the electoral reform increased opportunities for smaller parties to challenge Chile’s two dominant centre coalitions, many observers argue that further reform is necessary to resolve remaining malapportionment. Studies suggest that the 2015 reform, which saw the abandonment of Chile’s previous binomial electoral districts in favor of uneven multi-member districts shaped by proportional population shares, has done little to resolve regional malapportionment. A Dartmouth study of the electoral reform concludes that while ideological bias has likely been rooted out, “the principle of vote equality –or ‘one person, one vote’– continues to be violated in Chilean legislative elections.”

The 2017 election results make clear that work remains for Chilean lawmakers that seek to encourage democratic deepening. Underlining the remaining electoral inequities, a U.S. think tank recently concluded that even after the 2015 reform, “[t]he [Chilean] Senate will remain the ninth most malapportioned upper chamber in the world, and the [Chilean] Chamber [of Deputies] the eleventh most malapportioned lower chamber.” The think tank report further clarifies that while “remaining malapportionment is a flaw in the system, [. . .] it would be easy to remedy using practices well established among other democracies.” Chilean lawmakers should embrace the opportunity for further reform to resolve remaining regional inequities before the 2021 legislative elections.

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