Chile | Freedom House

Freedom in the World


Freedom in the World 2016
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Quick Facts

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A series of corruption scandals characterized Chilean politics in 2015, and impeded President Michelle Bachelet’s plans for large-scale tax and education reform. Two of the scandals involved allegations that corporations had made illegal contributions to political parties, and another centered on Bachelet’s son and daughter-in-law, who were accused of using their political influence to secure a profitable real estate deal. In response to the events, the president proposed a series of anticorruption measures in April, and reorganized her cabinet in May.

In April, the administration succeeded in passing into law a proportional voting system, ending an arrangement in which the top two candidates in each district are elected, to the exclusion of smaller parties. Still, dissatisfaction with the president’s inability to live up to campaign promises, coupled with the corruption scandals, seriously damaged her standing; the results of one poll, released in September, showed Bachelet’s approval rating at 20 percent. 

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Political Rights: 38 / 40 (−1) [Key]

A. Electoral Process: 12 / 12

The president of Chile is elected for a four-year term, and consecutive terms are not permitted. The Senate’s 38 members serve eight-year terms, with half up for election every four years, and members of the 120-member Chamber of Deputies are elected to four-year terms.

General elections held in 2013 were considered free and fair. The ruling center-left New Majority coalition—formerly known as Concertación—won 67 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 12 in the Senate, for a simple majority in both houses. Parties affiliated with the conservative Alliance coalition won 49 seats in the lower house and 7 in the Senate. Bachelet, who previously served as president from 2006 to 2010, was again elected president in 2013.


B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 15 / 16

Chile has a multiparty political system with two dominant coalitions. The center-left New Majority coalition is composed of the Christian Democratic Party, the Socialist Party, the Party for Democracy, and the Communist Party. The center-right Alliance coalition consists of the Independent Democratic Union and the National Renewal party. Most parties identify themselves on the basis of political, economic, and social ideology.

After many unsuccessful attempts at electoral reform, in April 2015 President Bachelet signed a law replacing Chile’s “binominal system” of voting, in which the top two candidates in each district win seats, with a proportional system of representation. The binomial system, bequeathed from the era of military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet, has effectively limited Congress to members of the two dominant coalitions. Under the new system, redrawn electoral districts are expected to create an environment more favorable to smaller parties and independent candidates. Additionally, the number of lower-house deputies will rise from 120 to 155, and there will be 50 upper-house representatives rather than 38. Forty percent of candidates must also be women. The new system is scheduled to go into effect starting with the 2017 general elections.

Some members of Chile’s indigenous minority groups serve in municipal legislatures, but there are no indigenous representatives at the national level.


C. Functioning of Government: 11 / 12 (−1)

In 2015, three major scandals marred Chile’s reputation for relatively low levels of corruption. One involved the financial firm Penta Group, whose owners were accused of evading taxes and illegally financing the opposition Independent Democratic Union through a variety of schemes. Jovino Novoa, a former Independent Democratic Union senator, was found guilty of tax fraud in November in connection with a related investigation. A mining company controlled by Pinochet’s son was also accused of making illegal contributions to political parties, including the Independent Democratic Union but also to parties in the ruling New Majority coalition. Finally, in February, allegations emerged that the president’s son and daughter-in-law had used their political influence to obtain a bank loan for a questionable property deal from which they made millions of dollars in profit. Prosecutors launched an investigation, which was ongoing at the year’s end.

In response to the financing scandals, in April 2015 Bachelet proposed anticorruption reforms that would prevent private companies and anonymous donors from funding politicians. She also pledged to rewrite the constitution, which was put in place during Pinochet’s military dictatorship. In May, she asked her entire cabinet to resign, resulting in five ministers being dismissed and four others being moved to different positions. The series of scandals, combined with slowing economic growth, forced Bachelet to stall plans for education and tax reforms.

Chile was ranked 23 out of 168 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index.


Civil Liberties: 57 / 60 (+1)

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 16 / 16

Guarantees of free speech are generally respected, though some laws barring defamation of state institutions remain on the books. The Spanish media group PRISA owns 60 percent of radio stations, and two private Chilean companies, El Mercurio and Copesa, own approximately 95 percent of newspaper titles. This duopoly in the print sector hinders the ability of independent media to compete. 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. Chileans enjoy open and free private discussion.


E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 12 / 12 (+1)

The right to assemble peacefully is generally respected. In large student protests that took place across the country in 2015, demonstrators demanded greater say in university operations as well as reforms to a variety of government policies, educational and otherwise. On several occasions, protesters clashed with police, who responded with tear gas and water cannons. However, there appeared to be fewer complaints of police violence against demonstrators in 2015 than in previous years. Nongovernmental organizations may form and operate without interference.

Despite strong laws protecting worker and union rights, antiunion practices by private employers are reportedly common.


F. Rule of Law: 14 / 16

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.

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 inmates suffer from physical abuse and poor sanitation.

In 2014, Bachelet announced a pledge to overturn a controversial amnesty law that protects military officers who committed human rights violations in the first five years of Pinochet’s regime, which in its entirety lasted from 1973 to 1990. Critics of the law have deemed it inconsistent with Chile’s commitment to respecting human rights. The announcement was largely symbolic, as many courts have circumvented the ruling in recent years, allowing for the sentencing of at least 262 individuals according to Amnesty International. In July 2015, a judge charged ten military officers in connection with the 1973 killing of activist and folk singer Victor Jara; also in July, a judge in a separate case charged seven military officials with the burning deaths of two protesters in 1986.

Approximately 1.5 million Chileans identify themselves with indigenous ethnic groups. While indigenous people still experience societal discrimination, their poverty levels are declining, aided by government scholarships, land transfers, and social spending. The slow and delayed repatriation of the ancestral land of the Mapuche indigenous group has been a cause of years of violent protest, including arson attacks on disputed lands, aggravated in recent years by the application of Chile’s controversial antiterrorism law to cases of Mapuche resistance. The legislation, as modified from the Pinochet regime, allows for anonymous witness testimony, extended detention of suspects without charge, and lengthy sentences. In 2014, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights annulled the conviction of eight indigenous activists who had been tried under the antiterrorism law in 2003; the Bachelet administration agreed to adhere to the decision, but at year’s end the antiterrorism law had not been modified.

LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people continue to face societal bias, despite a 2012 antidiscrimination law that covers sexual orientation and gender identity. Bachelet has voiced support for efforts to strengthen laws against hate crimes and discrimination.


G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 15 / 16

The constitution protects the freedom of movement, and the government respects this right in practice. Individuals have the right to own property and establish and operate private businesses, and are able to do so without interference from the government or other actors.

Violence against women and children remains a problem. Bachelet introduced a bill in January to decriminalize abortion in cases of rape, fetal impairment, or endangerment of the mother’s life. However, the bill was still in Congress at the end of 2015, held up by a rift within the ruling coalition over its various elements. At the year’s end, Chile remained one of only five countries in the world that allows imprisonment for the crime of abortion. In March, Bachelet announced the creation of a Women and Gender Equality Ministry, devoted to increasing gender equality in all government programs. Paternity leave is compulsory in Chile. In April, Bachelet signed into law a bill recognizing same-sex civil unions and granting cohabiting couples the right to join their partner’s health care plan and receive their pension benefits; the law took effect in October.

In February, Bachelet signed into law an education reform package designed to address a deep socioeconomic divide in Chile’s primary and secondary schools. Its measures ban for-profit elementary and high schools, and limits their selective entrance policies. However, the results of a poll released in September showed that 75 percent of respondents said they doubted the new reforms would reduce inequality in Chile.

While all forms of compulsory labor are illegal, forced labor, particularly among foreign citizens, continues to occur in the agriculture, mining, and domestic service sectors. In 2015, law enforcement agencies continued efforts to combat human trafficking, following measures in 2013 that increased the capacity of prosecutors and investigators to respond to the issue.


Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

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