The 1980 constitution was a legal mechanism set in place by the Pinochet dictatorship to codify neoliberalism and prevent the state from intervening in the economy. It was a straitjacket, covering everything from the electoral system to regional power structures, which blocked any downward redistribution of wealth and insulated political leaders from popular discontent. The previous 1925 Constitution had been far more decentralized; regional governments, for example, had to follow instructions from assemblies selected by the municipalities. Under Pinochet, governors and mayors were appointed by the president and local assemblies were abolished, which meant there was no democratic accountability. Trade unionists were banned from forming a party or running as party representatives. Power was hoarded at the top.
After he lost the plebiscite in 1988 and his party lost the election in 1989, Pinochet insisted that many of these anti-democratic provisions were kept in place as a condition for his stepping down, and the mainstream parties agreed. This left many ‘authoritarian enclaves’ in the Constitution, as well as reforms that amounted to democratic façades; for instance, mayors were now elected, but almost all their funding was allocated by the central state. The commanders of the armed forces and police could not be removed; they were selected via internal procedures and the elected executive had no power to replace them. The National Security Council, cosena, composed of military personnel, acted as an autonomous power that monitored and influenced the civil government. There were designated senators and senators for life, appointed by Pinochet to consolidate his stranglehold on the state.
The anti-Pinochet coalitions elected after 1990 tried to abolish these ‘authoritarian enclaves’. In 2005, the Socialist President Ricardo Lagos eliminated most of these, after negotiations with the right-wing parties in Congress, and signed his name on the newly amended constitution. But Lagos left one crucial feature in place: the binomial electoral system, which allowed for two multiple-party coalitions in which the minority coalition received a disproportionate number of congressional seats. This rule initially served the pro-Pinochet parties, but by the time Lagos entered office it had come to benefit his coalition, the Concertación—so it was kept.
Ultimately, Lagos’s reforms demonstrated that it does not really matter if you eliminate the authoritarian enclaves: the system can still reproduce itself; structural inequalities persist. Yes, we got rid of senators for life, but the people who filled those positions were just as conservative, so the outcome was the same. When the electoral system was reformed in 2015, under Michelle Bachelet’s second presidency, the districts were drawn in such a way as to disenfranchise people. They also retained the D’Hondt method—one of the most unrepresentative of all proportional representation systems—which disadvantaged smaller parties and strengthened the dominant coalition blocs.
On the right, there is a coalition made up of four different forces: the udi, the Unión Demócrata Independiente, created in 1983 by hard-line Pinochet supporters; the Renovación Nacional—the ‘renovated’ business elite who are economically neoliberal and more liberal in terms of cultural values. There are also two parties that have emerged more recently: Evópoli, whose name means something like ‘liberal evolution’, and the neo-fascist Republican Party, founded by José Antonio Kast, who was the presidential candidate in the 2021 election and who broke away from udi because it was too moderate. Kast says that udi has abandoned its heritage and that Chile should return to the Pinochet era. The Republicans have entered a coalition with the conservative evangelicals, in an attempt to mimic right-wing politics in the us. They currently have fifteen deputies in the lower chamber.
Then there is the Concertación. This was the grand coalition that was built to oppose Pinochet in the 1988 referendum. It brought together the Christian Democrats—who initially supported the coup in 1973, then backtracked and joined the opposition—and the Socialist Party, as well as the Partido por la Democracia and some other small parties. The Concertación governed for the first three terms after the fall of the dictatorship, but its supporters became increasingly demoralized, because so little changed—the neoliberal economy simply grew more unequal. They then incorporated the Communist Party and rebranded as La Nueva Mayoría, ‘the new majority’. Bachelet was first elected president in 2006 as part of this new coalition.
Since the collapse of the Nueva Mayoría vote in 2017, after Bachelet and her family were engulfed in scandals, the role of the Concertación has been supplanted by Apruebo Dignidad, ‘I endorse dignity’. This new grouping was established by the Frente Amplio—a broad front of several mini-parties, from the centrist Revolución Democrática to the Podemos-style Comunes—and the Communists, to compete in the 2021 elections. It is headed by the current president, Gabriel Boric. Outside of these major blocs, you have some small environmentalist parties and independents. But because congressional elections function on the basis of lists—you have to be elected as part of a candidate list, and these lists are usually dominated by the established parties—it is difficult for such forces to make headway.