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Wealthy businessman and former senator Sebastián Piñera of the center-right Coalition for Change was elected president in a January 2010 runoff vote. His inauguration as Chile’s first conservative head of state since the end of the dictatorship in 1990 represented a dramatic rupture with the past. Piñera’s victory came despite the popularity of outgoing center-left 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 Concertación (Coalition of Parties for Democracy) won the presidential vote, ushering in an era of regular democratic power transfers as well as two decades of Concertación rule.
In the first step in what would become a years-long effort to hold Pinochet responsible for his regime’s 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 September 2006 Supreme Court decision cleared the way for his trial, but Pinochet died in December of that year.
Michelle Bachelet, who served as health and defense minister under the outgoing Concertación president, won the January 2006 presidential election. Early in her term, Bachelet faced huge student demonstrations demanding education improvements, and oversaw a botched reform of Santiago’s public transit system. Concertación’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, and her government was able to continue social spending during the global economic downturn that began in 2008 thanks to its aggressive saving of copper revenues during the previous commodities boom.
Despite Bachelet’s personal popularity, Sebastián Piñera of the center-right Coalition for Change led the first round of the presidential election in December 2009, and went on to win the January 2010 runoff with 51.6 percent of the vote, defeating former president Eduardo Frei of Concertación. In the concurrent December 2009 congressional election, the Coalition for Change edged out Concertación in the 120-seat lower house, 58 seats to 57, with the remainder going to small parties and independents. In the Senate, the two main blocs split the 18 seats at stake, leading to a new total of 19 for Concertación, 16 for the Coalition for Change, and 3 for independents.
The new administration was challenged by a massive earthquake that struck Chile in late February 2010, but Piñera was able to carry out effective reconstruction due to Chile’s sound public finances. The government also assumed full control of rescue operations after an accident trapped 33 miners in a gold and copper mine in northern Chile in August. Their successful rescue in October boosted Piñera’s popularity as well as Chile’s international image. Responding to the incident, the president vowed that Chile would pass an International Labour Organization convention that protects workers who raise safety concerns.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
Chile is an electoral democracy. Elections are considered free and fair. The president is elected for a single four-year term. 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 early 2010, the Bachelet administration introduced a bill that would remove 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 revision of the Copper Law caused much debate within Chile and was not completed by year’s end. However, public support for stopping the automatic military transfer increased after the massive reconstruction costs resulting from the February earthquake.
The major political groupings in Chile include the center-left Concertación, 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 Unionand the National Renewal party; and the Communist Party. The Coalition for Change, encompassing the Alliance coalition, independents, and some Concertación 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. A 2007 law was designed to further improve transparency, in part by protecting public employees who expose corruption. Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index gave Chile a ranking of 21 out of 178 countries surveyed, making it the best performer in Latin America.
Guarantees of free speech are generally respected, and the media operate without constraint, though 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. No formal convictions, however, had been made by the end of 2010.
The government has developed effective mechanisms to investigate and punish police abuse and corruption. However, excessive force and human rights abuses committed by the Carabineros—a national police element of the armed forces—still occur. Chile’s prisons are overcrowded and increasingly violent. 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, their poverty levels are declining, aided by government scholarships, land transfers, and social spending. For example, in 2010 President Sebastián Piñera promised to spend $4 billion on development in the southern Araucanía region, one of Chile’s poorest regions and the homeland of the Mapuche Indians. A 1993 law paved the way for the return of land to Chile’s indigenous peoples, but in many cases, it has prompted additional claims, land seizures, and violence. More than 100 Mapuche are incarcerated in southern Chile for crimes including armed assault and arson, committed in attempts to reclaim ancestral lands that were sold by the government without the Mapuche’s consent. Over 30 Mapuche accused of attacks participated in an extended hunger strike in 2010, which prompted a change to Chile’s antiterrorism law. The law, which dated to the Pinochet era, allowed for secret witnesses, pretrial detention, and the use of military courts. As amended by Congress in September, the law presumes innocence and carries a reduced sentence for arson.
Violence against women and children remains a problem, though gender discrimination is on the decline. Divorce was legalized only in 2004. 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 cabinetand helped enact new laws to remove public-sector job candidates’ gender from applications, mandate public-sector job training during regular working hours, expand the right to nurse infants during working hours, improve pension benefits for low-income female homemakers, and eliminate the pay gap between men and women performing the same work. Reflecting an ongoing reduction in gender discrimination, the Ministry of Education announced in August 2010 that a majority of all higher education students were women.