Chile: From an Unlikely to a Necessary Reform

The Center for Latin American Studies (CLACS) recently hosted a series of events focused on the current Chilean context. On February 24th, Marco Enríquez-Ominami –presidential candidate in the 2009 and 2013 elections–, was invited to a Q&A session. On the following event, held on March 4th, Fernando Atria, a constitutional lawyer and Professor of Law at the University of Chile, and Chilean Sociologist Miguel Crispi, discussed their ideas on educational reform. This event also featured a perspective on educational reforms in the U.S. by Bloomberg Professor of Business Journalism at Baruch College, Andrea Gabor.

What was most striking about their expositions is that neither of them questioned the need for reform in Chile. The discussion rather focused on the necessary changes that country must implement in order to achieve development. Such a debate was perceived as inconceivable barely a few years ago. The idea of talking about viable and foundational transformations took place in hypothetical settings, and was far from being politically possible.

Neoliberalism was implemented in Chile by Augusto Pinochet’s military regime (1973-1990) and developed by the Concertación governments (1990-2010). It led to greater economic growth, macroeconomic stability and an overall reduction of poverty. Nevertheless, the same market-oriented policies resulted in a greater concentration of wealth, growing inequality, social stratification, a precarious social safety net, and an overall disenchantment with the political-economic system.

The Chilean model has undergone a crisis of legitimacy in recent years. The student protests of 2011 and high abstention rates in the municipal elections of 2012 were symptoms of a much greater problem. Nonetheless, they provided a unique opportunity for the political elite to engage in a serious debate that emphasized the need for change.

However, reform in Chile has been difficult to achieve. This is mainly due to the institutional framework inherited by the dictatorship, which consists of high legislative quorums and an electoral system that fixes the distribution of seats in Congress. Hence, generally speaking, the Chilean political system has numerous veto players –commonly overrepresented in their functions– that are more intent on amending or blocking reforms, than actually approving them.

The Constitution of 1980 provides a good example. 25 years have passed since the democratic transition, and Chileans are still ruled by an authoritarian constitution that was approved in a fraudulent plebiscite.

Moreover, the ongoing transformations have taken on a “bottom-up” approach, leaving behind the “top-down” style commonly used in post-authoritarian politics. Thus, it’s been grassroots organizations –such as student federations– that have promoted change and gained social backing. In other words, they have been the leaders in setting the current political agenda.

In 2013 Michelle Bachelet was re-elected as president of Chile with 62.2% of the national vote. Her electoral platform was built upon social demands and stressed the need for reform. Hence, a vote for Bachelet translated into a vote for modifying the status quo. The president began delivering on her campaign promises as soon as she returned to office. In 2014 her government was successful in passing a series of strategic policies, which included a tax and electoral reform, and the first bills of her educational law.

Nonetheless, the lesson learned so far is that reform isn’t easily accomplished – even if your coalition holds a majority of seats in Congress.

Seven political parties form part of the Nueva Mayoría (former Concertación), each of them with at least one –necessary– vote in the House of Representatives or Senate. It is a heterogeneous coalition that groups conservative Christian Democrats and radical-leaning Communists. As a result, there have been different –and at times contradicting– viewpoints when discussing structural reforms.

Furthermore, the current setting also includes a highly critical civil society and an even more (than usual) reactionary political opposition.

This was one of the underlying messages seen in the presentations made by Enríquez-Ominami, Atria and Crispi. Today, Chileans share a common diagnosis, no matter what their political sector may be. However, when defining a convergent cure, consensus is yet to be met.

Post by Lucas Perelló C., Applied Quantitative Research M.A. student at NYU

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