Chile, Constitutions

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Chile, Constitutions

Two seminal constitutions provided the legal framework for ruling Chile from 1833 until 1973.


Chile's 1833 Constitution, while not the nation's first, was the most durable, lasting until 1925. By initially insisting that only men at least twenty-one years old, literate, and affluent could vote, it sought to empower only the most conservative. Predictably, the requirements for becoming legislators were substantially more demanding than those for mere voters: the indirectly elected senators, who served for nine years, had to be at least thirty-five years old and own more property than the popularly elected deputies, who served for three years and had to be at least thirty years old. The president, who had to be older and wealthier than any of the legislators, enjoyed enormous powers. He appointed men to the judiciary, provincial office, and the cabinet; he could veto laws and could, if needed, declare a state of siege, thereby suspending an already limited number of political freedoms. Initially, the legislature could do little to restrain the president. Every eighteen months it could deny him the right to collect taxes, refuse to pass his budget, and limit the size of the armed forces.

The 1833 Constitution successfully restored order to Chile. As the nation's political system became less monolithic, demands for change became more vocal. As early as 1846, the legislature won the right to interpolate ministers; eleven years later the congress threatened to withhold funds unless President Manuel Montt changed the composition of his cabinet. The proliferation of parties, all of which wanted a chance to participate in the political system, increased the pace of change. In the 1860s the legislature passed laws granting increased religious freedom to non-Catholics and preventing the president from succeeding himself in office. Within a few years Congress altered the requirements on legislative quorums, liberalized the naturalization process, granted the right of free association, increased the number of deputies, established electoral districts for senators—who previously had been elected at large—limited the president's right to rule by decree or to invoke his extraordinary powers, created a panel to protect civil liberties, and increased the legislature's right to question ministers. Subsequent measures extended suffrage by reducing the voting age and eliminating property requirements. During the 1880s the constitution was altered to end the church's control over cemeteries and the civil registry while making marriage a civil contract.

The 1891 revolution that forced President José Manuel Balmaceda Fernández from power decisively altered the 1833 Constitution. After 1891 a hybrid parliamentary system ruled Chile. As in other parliamentary democracies, the ministry remained in power only as long as it enjoyed the confidence of the legislature. Unfortunately, it became increasingly difficult for anyone to govern. From 1891 to 1924, 121 separate cabinets attempted to rule, and there were more than five hundred ministerial changes. This instability resulted from the fact that widespread bribery, intimidation, and simple fraud permitted candidates to win office without having to appeal to the electorate. The combination of proportional representation and vote fraud led to a proliferation of political parties, which virtually required the formation of coalition governments. Insulated from the electorate's legitimate wrath, congress ignored the country's pressing social problems and the widening economic gap separating the oligarchy from the rest of the country. Finally, the post-World War I collapse of the nitrate markets forced Chile to confront the political debacle. In 1925, following two rebellions and the resignation of Arturo Alessandri Palma, Chileans abandoned the 1833 Constitution in favor of a new charter.


Politically, the 1925 Constitution restored the presidential form of government, allowing the people to elect the chief executive directly for a single term of six years. Following the legislature's approval, the cabinet would serve at the president's pleasure, although the Chamber of Deputies could impeach a minister for cause.

Chile remained a highly centralized nation. The president appointed virtually all the members of the judiciary as well as provincial officials (except for city councilmen), initiated the budget, and still retained the power to declare a state of siege. The president also enjoyed the right to authorize certain laws and expenditures by decree.

The 1925 Constitution retained a bicameral legislature in which the term for senators fell from nine to eight years and that for congressmen rose from three to four. Reflecting the experience of the Parliamentary Regime, the legislature's ability to influence the budgetary process was diminished from that enjoyed under the 1833 Constitution. Under the 1925 Constitution, the president could put the budget into effect if Congress failed to act within four months.

While guaranteeing civil liberties and the right of private property, the 1925 Constitution empowered the state to guarantee its citizens' right to work and to provide them with certain minimum benefits for themselves and their families. In addition, the constitution called for the government to stimulate agriculture, mining, and industrialization. To accomplish these and other goals, the central government enjoyed the right to subordinate private property to the public good.

Despite its dual commitment to the preservation of political freedoms as well as the promotion of social and economic change, the 1925 Constitution suffered from certain defects. For one thing, it adopted the complicated d'Hondt system of proportional representation, which effectively denied minority parties their fair share of legislative representation while seating individuals who often had not won a majority of the votes. The new constitution also perpetuated the political parties that had long outlived their rationale. Thus, presidents still had to build fragile coalitions, which resulted in some of the same political instability that characterized the Parliamentary Regime. The constitution, moreover, enfranchised neither women, who finally received the right to vote in 1949, nor illiterates. Because it did not call for reapportioning legislative districts, rural precincts enjoyed more political power than industrial urban centers. Political corruption remained quite common. Landowners often either cajoled or forced their workers to vote for their candidates, and in the cities the parties resorted to buying votes or stuffing the ballot boxes. It was not until the passage of reform laws in 1958 and 1962 that many of these abuses ended.

Still, the 1925 Constitution served Chile well, advancing efforts to protect its citizens' political rights and promoting the cause of social justice. Under its aegis, Chileans implemented sweeping economic changes like agrarian reform while enjoying ample political freedom. Unfortunately, the constitution could not settle the intensely partisan conflicts that arose during the Allende years, nor prevent the 1973 coup. In 1980 the Pinochet government submitted a substitute for the 1925 Constitution to the Chilean public which, following a referendum of questionable value, approved the new document.

See alsoAlessandri Palma, Arturo; Balmaceda Fernández, José Manuel; Chile: The Nineteenth Century; Chile: The Twentieth Century.


Paul V. Shaw, The Early Constitutions of Chile, 1810–1833 (1930).

Luis Galdámes, A History of Chile (1941).

Julio Heise González, La Constitución de 1925 y las nuevas tendencias político-sociales (1951).

Fernando Campos Harriet, Historia constitucional de Chile (1956).

Julio Heise González, 150 años de evolución institutional (1960).

Fredrick B. Pike, Chile and the United States, 1880–1962 (1963), pp. 182-185.

Federico G. Gil, The Political System of Chile (1966).

Karen L. Remmer, Party Competition in Argentina and Chile (1984).

                                          William F. Sater

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Chile, Constitutions

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