Profound social and political crisis emerges; cross-party consensus broken
In Chile, the period under review ended under the impact of a profound social and political crisis. In response to massive peaceful demonstrations, as well as some violent riots, President Sebastián Piñera declared a state of emergency that allowed him to deploy the military in the streets, as well as a short-term nighttime curfew in October 2019. Throughout the country, over 2 million people took to the streets demanding social justice and substantial reforms – including 1.2 million solely in Chile’s capital, Santiago. As stated by the Chilean Human Rights Institute, by 6 November 2019, severe violations of human rights had been reported during the protests, more than 5,000 people had been arrested, another 1,700 hospitalized and 23 had been killed. In his first press interview since the eruption of the crisis, one day before these numbers were published, President Piñera declared that he would be willing to review the possibility of introducing reforms to the current constitution if necessary. The cross-party consensus regarding the desired society and economic model, shared by the majority of the population since 1990, is broken. There is a disconnect between the mass population on the one hand, and the political and economic elite on the other. Intermediary actors have not been able to channel the society’s pressing demands.
Chile is a high-income country and, as such, has not been eligible for official development assistance (ODA) since 2017. It is ranked best among the Latin American countries on the Human Development Index. However, several structural factors still produce inequality and exclusion. Its economy is highly open but extremely dependent on copper exports and is consequently vulnerable to commodity-price volatility. Competitiveness is negatively affected by collusion. Several serious cases of corruption have come to light, involving politicians of almost all parties as well as officials of important state institutions, including the national tax authority, the police and the military. Although the previous government introduced more restrictive regulations on party and campaign financing, political disaffection is still growing, illustrated in part by low rates of voter turnout. Discontent with politicians and politics is especially strong among the younger population and in middle-income households – a development that notably influenced the latest presidential elections in 2017.
Chile is a particularly heterogeneous country, yet economic and political power remain highly centralized in the capital Santiago. Consequently, regional and local interests are often insufficiently reflected in national policymaking. Unresolved ethnic conflicts often trigger a response by the state that, at times, fails to respect the civil and political rights of ethnic minorities (e.g., the Mapuche). In addition, certain forms of political discrimination inherited from the military dictatorship remain. For example, convicts with a prison sentence exceeding three years are barred from voting. Furthermore, convicts with less severe sentences and individuals in custody are de facto excluded from voting as institutional structures do not provide the necessary internal procedures to guarantee their constitutional right to participate in elections.
Protests driving new reform projects
As a result of the mass protests that continued beyond the end of the period under review, President Piñera announced several reform initiatives encompassing the areas of pension policy, healthcare and a state-subsidized minimum income for employees, among others. High popular hopes have been placed on the writing of a new constitution, as the current constitution lacks legitimacy of origin, with the original text dating from the Pinochet regime. Although the subsequent democratic governments have introduced a number of major modifications, it still contains significant constrains with regard to the fundamental reforms many believe are needed.