Chile | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2010

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Sebastian Pinera of the center-right Coalition for Change led the first round of the presidential election in December, and a runoff was scheduled for January 2010. His candidacy was supported by several high-level defectors from the ruling center-left Concertacion bloc, whose nominee—former president Eduardo Frei—would be Pinera’s runoff opponent. Pinera’s early success came despite the popularity of outgoing president Michelle Bachelet and her administration’s robust social-welfare programs.

The Republic of Chile was founded after independence from Spain in 1818. Democratic rule predominated in the 20th century until 1973, when General Augusto Pinochet led a military coup against President Salvador Allende. An estimated 3,000 people were killed or “disappeared” under Pinochet’s regime. The 1980 constitution provided for a plebiscite in which voters could bar another presidential term for the general. When the poll was held in 1988, some 55 percent of voters rejected eight more years of military rule, and competitive presidential and legislative elections were scheduled for the following year.
Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin of the center-left bloc Concertacion (Coalition of Parties for Democracy) won the presidential vote, ushering in a period of regular democratic power transfers. He was succeeded by Concertacion candidates Eduardo Frei, elected in 1993, and Ricardo Lagos, elected in 1999.
In the first step in what would become a years-long effort to hold Pinochet responsible for human rights atrocities, the former leader was detained in London in 1998 under an extradition order from Spain. After being released for health reasons in 2000, he returned to Chile, where he was eventually indicted in 2004 for tax evasion and two outstanding human rights cases. A series of pretrial legal battles over his health status and immunity from prosecution ended with a September 2006 Supreme Court decision that cleared the way for his trial. However, Pinochet died in December of that year.
Michelle Bachelet, Lagos’s health and defense minister, was elected president in January 2006. Because of Concertacion’s strong performance in the 2005 legislative elections and a reform that eliminated the institution of unelected senators, she became the first president to govern with majorities in both houses of Congress. However, this advantage was relatively short-lived. In December 2007, the Christian Democratic Party suffered a serious split, causing six of its lawmakers to break away and end Concertacion’s majority.
Early in her term, Bachelet faced huge student demonstrations demanding education improvements, and oversaw a botched reform of Santiago’s public transit system. Concertacion’s strength was also undermined in 2009 by infighting among its four member parties, three of which suffered defections. However, Bachelet presided over popular spending projects, including the construction of new hospitals, homes, and nursery schools. In 2009, the government was able to continue social spending despite the global economic downturn, as it had saved copper revenues aggressively during the previous commodities boom. Additional welfare programs in 2009 included monthly cash transfers to senior citizens without a pension in the poorest 50 percent of the population.
Despite Bachelet’s personal popularity, Concertacion candidate Eduardo Frei, the former president, garnered only 30 percent in the first round of the presidential election in December. Businessman and former senator Sebastian Pinera of the center-right Coalition for Change led the voting with 44 percent, and he was set to face Frei in a January 2010 runoff. Frei’s candidacy was weakened in part by Marco Enriquez-Ominami, a renegade Concertacion lawmaker who ran as an independent and won 20 percent of the first-round vote. In the concurrent legislative election, the Coalition for Change edged out Concertacion in the 120-seat lower house, 58 seats to 57, with the remainder going to small parties and independents. The Concertacion also picked up one seat in the Senate.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Chile is an electoral democracy. Elections are considered free and fair. The constitution, which took effect in 1981 and has been amended several times, currently calls for a president elected for a single four-year term, and a bicameral National Congress. The Senate’s 38 members serve eight-year terms, with half coming up for election every four years, and the 120-member Chamber of Deputies is elected for four years.
In 2005, the Senate passed reforms that repealed some of the last vestiges of military rule, ending authoritarian curbs on the legislative branch and restoring the president’s right to remove top military commanders. The reform package included the abolition of the Senate’s nine unelected seats and reduced the presidential term from six years to four. In September 2009, a bill was introduced to repeal another relic of the former regime, the Copper Reserve Law, which obliged the state-owned copper producer Codelco to transfer 10 percent of its earnings to the military.
The major political groupings in Chile include the center-left Concertacion, composed of the Christian Democratic Party, the Socialist Party, the Party for Democracy, and the Social Democratic Radical Party; the center-right Alliance coalition, consisting of the Independent Democratic Union and the National Renewal party; and the Communist Party. The Coalition for Change, encompassing the Alliance coalition, independents, and some Concertacion defectors, was formed in May 2009.
Congress passed significant transparency and campaign finance laws in 2003 that contributed to Chile’s reputation as Latin America’s best-governed country. In 2007, Congress passed a law designed to further improve transparency, in part by protecting public employees who expose corruption. Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index gave Chile a ranking of 25 out of 180 countries surveyed, making it the best performer in Latin America.
Guarantees of free speech are generally respected, and the media operate without constraint. Some laws barring defamation of state institutions remain on the books. The print media are dominated by two right-leaning companies, but the television market is considered highly diverse. A freedom of information law enacted in 2008 was praised by civil society groups. There are no government restrictions on the internet.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally upholds this right in practice. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
The right to assemble peacefully is largely respected, and the constitution guarantees the right of association and collective bargaining, which the government has also upheld. Despite laws protecting worker and union rights, antiunion practices by private employers are reportedly common.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the courts are generally free from political interference. The right to legal counsel is constitutionally guaranteed, but indigent defendants have not always received effective representation. Chilean courts have convicted several former military officers of committing heinous crimes during military rule. In September 2009, arrest warrants were issued for 129 former security officials tied to disappearances and killings from that period.
The government has developed effective mechanisms to investigate and punish police abuse and corruption. Chile’s prisons are overcrowded, and inmates suffer from physical abuse as well as substandard medical and food services.
Indigenous groups comprise approximately 5 percent of Chile’s population. While they still experience societal discrimination, indigenous poverty levels are declining, aided by government scholarships and land transfers.However, violence and land seizures increased in 2009 due to frustration among indigenous groups over the pace of the government’s land return program.
Violence against women and children remains a problem, though gender discrimination is on the decline. In 2004, Congress passed a law that legalized divorce; Chile had been one of only a handful of countries in the world to prohibit divorce. President Michelle Bachelet made great strides to reduce gender discrimination. She initially fulfilled a campaign promise by appointing women to half of the positions in her cabinet, and in 2006 she helped enact a new public-sector labor code that removed job candidates’ gender from applications and mandated job training during regular working hours. A breastfeeding law passed in 2007 expanded the rights of women to nurse their infants during working hours, and pension reforms in 2008 provided a range of benefits for female homemakers, particularly those with low incomes. While a quota law to promote political participation by women is still pending, Congress passed a law in May 2009 that aimed to eliminate the pay gap between men and women performing the same work.