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October 25, 2014
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End in sight for Pinochet electoral legacy

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.

Lower House approves changes to binomial system; overhaul to face tougher challenge in Senate

SANTIAGO — Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said yesterday that “after 25 years Chile is moving forward to better politics” after the country’s Lower House approved a reform to the binomial electoral system set up during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

“After 25 years, this is a huge step because we are moving forward to better politics,” she said. “This is not abstract like many people said,” she added.

The main points in Bachelet’s bill were approved late on Wednesday by the Lower Chamber, including an increase in the total number of lawmakers and the redrawing of electoral boundaries. The project will now go to the Senate, where it is expected to face a tougher challenge.

Eighty-six lawmakers agreed with the need to reform the binomial system during general voting, while 28 voted against it. The ruling coalition had the support of centre-right Renovación Nacional (the party of former president Sebastián Piñera) and of independents, including former student leader Giorgio Jackson and Gabriel Boric.

The vote gave way to loud applause and cheers in the chamber. Though RN rejected most of the bill’s articles in article-by-article voting, the favourable vote in general was interpreted as a signal of its disposition to reach an agreement in the Senate.

Right-wing UDI, meanwhile, was fervently against the bill and several of its deputies insisted on its alleged unconstitutionality, given that there was no agreement on how to finance the increase in the number of parliamentarians (from 120 to 155 in the Lower Chamber and from 38 to 50 in the Senate). In article-by-article voting, the government managed to pass the reform without significant “mutilations” to the bill’s articles, including the redrawing of boundaries.

The binomial system

The current electoral system was created by General Augusto Pinochet toward the end of his 1973-1990 period in power to ensure right-wing parties retained an important say after the return to democracy. It effectively prevents any one bloc from gaining a significant majority.

By electing the top two finishers in each district, its practical effect is that the two main coalitions take nearly all the seats. Chile is the only country in the world to use this system.

Multiple attempts have been made to reform the system in the last 24 years but have foundered due to a lack of cross-party support.

“Today we have taken a fundamental step,” said Interior Minister Rodrigo Peñailillo.

“This is a historic and important day for the strengthening of our democracy... it is a reform that we have been waiting for more than 24 years,” he added.

Bachelet, meanwhile, thanked lawmakers for supporting the bill. “I want to thank congressmen from the New Majority (the ruling-coalition), independents and some who are part of the opposition because they have understood and have supported the urgency and the need for our country to have more and better democracy,” she said.

She also said she trusts “the Senate to ratify the Lower Chamber’s decision so that Chile can put an end to the binomial system.”

Government spokesman, Álvaro Elizalde, said that “we will keep working for the final approval of this bill in the Senate. Chile needs majorities to express themselves reliably in Congress.”

The bill makes good on a pledge of Bachelet ahead of last year’s election. If passed into law, her bloc would likely win a larger majority in future congressional elections, allowing it to make more sweeping reforms to the Pinochet-era Constitution.

Herald with Reuters, Télam, online media

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