James McBride on electoral reform in Chile
Last Wednesday, April 23rd, the newly formed Bachelet Administration announced the first details of one of Chile’s most long awaited reforms: that of the so-called “binomial” electoral system.
These changes would overhaul a voting system put in place under the Pinochet dictatorship.
To recap: in Chile’s current system, the country’s voting districts each elect two candidates for the upper and lower houses of Congress. These candidates are elected from party lists, and the winning party list must double (“doblaje”) the votes of the second place finisher in order to win both seats.
Complaints arise because the system gives a disproportionate amount of power to the second place finisher. A lopsided popular vote – say, 65 percent to 35 percent – is as good as a tie, since both parties get one seat. In practice, binomialism leads to an overrepresentation of second-place conservative parties and near complete freeze out of third party lists.
Bachelet’s proposals also seek to address the geographical disproportionality of Chile’s system.
Cities and highly populated urban areas a underrepresented in Congress, again to the advantage of conservatives, who draw more support from rural areas. As Chilean political scientist Marcela Rios points out, a region like Coyahique, with its 20,000 voters, sends the same amount of representatives to Congress as does Santiago Poniente, with 800,000 voters.
(This should ring a bell for anyone who follows US congressional politics.)
All of this adds up to a system in which gaining a governing majority, especially given Chile’s supermajority requirements for passing much legislation, can be a Herculean task. For the Pinochetista architects of the system, who were struggling to put a brake on change in the midst of an unexpected democratic transition, that was the whole idea.
In her public remarks, Bachelet pulled no punches. “The binomial system is a thorn in the heart of our democracy,” she said. “Its a system that owes its existence to the dictatorship and that perpetuates exclusion.”
So what would these reforms do, specifically?
Stated most simply, the proposal would reduce the overall number of voting districts, while increasing the number of seats elected in each district and assigning more seats to urban areas. This will mean greater competition for seats among the parties, and a more proportional representation of Chile’s population in Congress.
The juicy details include:
- The current 60 lower house districts will be reduced to 28. The current 19 Senate districts will be reduced to 15, to match up with Chile’s regions.
- The lower house will add 35 new seats, increasing from 120 to 155 members. The Senate will add 12 new seats, increasing from 38 to 50 members.
- Major urban areas will get most of the new seats. Santiago, Valparaiso, and Bio Bio will get a combined 23 of the 35 new lower house seats. Santiago will also get three of the 12 new senate seats.
- The reforms will also promote gender parity by requiring that women make up at least 40 percent of all party candidate lists.
Critically, the politics of the reforms remain to be hammered out. Bachelet needs a three-fifths majority in Congress to pass the legislation, which her coalition does not control outright. The bargaining has surely already begun in earnest.
James McBride is an Associate at Blue Star Strategies, an international consulting firm that advises corporations, governments, and institutions on government affairs and investment strategies. Find more of his writing at jelliotmcbride.com.
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