Following a coup in 1973, Chile was ruled by a military regime headed by General Augusto Pinochet until 1990. The first years of the regime were marked by serious human rights violations. In its later years, however, the regime gradually permitted greater freedom of assembly, speech, and association, to include trade-union activity. In contrast to its authoritarian political rule, the military government pursued decidedly laissez faire economic policies. During its 16 years in power, Chile moved away from economic statism toward a largely free-market economy and that fostered an increase in domestic and foreign private investment.
General Pinochet was denied a second 8-year term as President in a national plebiscite in 1988. In December 1989, Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin, running as the candidate of a multi-party, center-left coalition, was elected president. In the 1993 election, Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle of the Christian Democratic Party was elected president for a 6-year term and took office in March 1994. Chile’s constitution was approved in a September 1980 national plebiscite. It entered into force in March 1981.
After Pinochet’s defeat in the 1988 plebiscite, the constitution was amended to: ease provisions for future amendments to the constitution; create 9 appointed or “institutional” senators; and diminish the role of the National Security Council by equalizing the number of civilian and military members (4 members each). Chile’s bicameral Congress has a 48-seat Senate (38 elected, 9 appointed, 1 for life) and a 120-member Chamber of Deputies. Deputies are elected every 4 years. Senators serve for 8 years with staggered terms.
The current Senate contains 20 members from the center-left governing coalition, 18 from the rightist opposition. In March 1998, 9 newly appointed institutional senators–replacing those appointed under the former military government in 1989–took seats, as did ex-President Pinochet, who became a “senator for life” (Chile’s constitution provides that ex-Presidents who have served at least 6 years shall be entitled to a lifetime senate seat. ) Both the Aylwin and Frei Administrations have proposed unsuccessfully the abolition of the 9 appointed Senate seats.
The last congressional elections were held in December 1997. The current lower house (the Chamber of Deputies) contains 70 members of the governing coalition and 50 from the rightist opposition. The Congress is located in the port city of Valparaiso, about 140 kilometers (84 mi. ) west of the capital, Santiago. Chile’s congressional elections are governed by a unique binomial system that rewards coalition slates. Each coalition can run two candidates for the two Senate and two lower chamber seats apportioned to each chamber’s electoral districts. Typically, the two largest coalitions split the seats in a district.
Only if the leading coalition ticket outpolls the second-place coalition by a margin of more than 2-to-1 does the winning coalition gain both seats. The political parties with the largest representation in the current Chilean Congress are the centrist Christian Democrat Party and the center-right National Renewal Party. The Communist Party and the small Humanist Party failed to gain any seats in the 1997 elections. Chile’s judiciary is independent and includes a court of appeal, a system of military courts, a constitutional tribunal, and the Supreme Court.