VALPARAISO, CHILE. The hall “The Thinkers” of the national congress in Chile’s legislative capital Valparaiso was crowded until late Wednesday night when members of Congress’ lower house approved a bill to reform the country’s dictatorship-era polling system.
After almost eight hours of intense debate, the proposed electoral reform was approved with 86 votes in favor and 28 votes against. The bill will now go to the Senate.
This is a key step forward for President Michelle Bachelet’s center-left government. It succeeded in pushing the bill thanks to the support of center-right and independent representatives.
“This is a change we have been waiting for, for about 25 years,” says Fidel Oyarzo Saldago, Political coordinator at Television Nacional de Chile. He has covered Chilean politics for the past 40 years and hailed the day as “historic”.
President Bachelet described the bill as “a huge step” towards “better politics.” “This [reform] is not abstract. Citizens’ interests will be now better represented in the Parliament, because there are going to be more and more candidates,” she declared.
In 2013, after winning the biggest landslide since Santiago’s return to democracy, President Bachelet committed to advancing her program of constitutional reforms including changing the polling system.
End of the “binomial” system
Chile is the only country in the world to use the “binomial” system.
General Augusto Pinochet created it toward the end of the 1973-1990 military dictatorship to guarantee that right-wing parties keep power after the return to democracy.
By electing the top two finishers in each district, this polling system ensures that the two main coalitions take nearly all the Congress’ seats. In other words, it blocks any bloc from gaining a significant majority. Minor parties, such as the Communist party, were thus marginalized from the Congress.
For the 2014-2018 congressional term, the New Majority – a center-left coalition –controls 56% of the Chamber of Deputies whilst the Alliance for Chile – right wing – holds 41%.
The approved bill would increase the size of the lower house from 120 to 155 and senators’ seats from 38 to 50.
In addition, the law aims to improve female representation because election slates must not have more than 60 percent of candidates from either gender.
“The law will expand the political landscape,” explains Carola Delgado Ureta, who is in charge of public information of the vice presidency of the Chamber of Deputies.
“It is a more participative and more democratic law. It is an opportunity for real change,” she adds.
Yet, Ivan Moreira, Vice President of Chile’s right-wing Independent Democratic Union party and Senator of the Lagos region in the south of the country, does not entirely agree.
“I personally prefer the old system because it created democratic stability but the left wants this change,” he says.
“At the same time, I agree that it is important to change the system.”