Chile, Parliamentary Regime

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Chile, Parliamentary Regime

Chile's Parliamentary Regime, the political system under which Chile was ruled from 1891 to 1925. The 1891 Revolution effectively destroyed the presidential form of government that had been in effect in Chile since 1833. Henceforth, the chief executive acted as a figurehead while the Congress, under the leadership of the minister of the interior, the Chilean equivalent of a prime minister, dictated national policy.

While not intrinsically defective, Chile's parliamentary system suffered significant flaws. In order to ensure honest elections, the Law of Municipalities (1891) shifted control of the electoral system from the central government to the provinces. This transfer of power, however, merely permitted urban bosses and rural landowners to control the political process. Consequently, these individuals selected their own candidates, ensuring their electoral triumph through bribery, intimidation, or fraud. Since the candidates no longer had to court voters but merely the power brokers, they could safely ignore the needs of the nation. Dishonest elections also preserved parties that possessed no distinctive ideologies or rationales for existing, other than the egos of their own members.

Chile's extremely limited electorate divided their votes between an increasing number of parties. One of the results of the dishonest electoral system was that no one party could achieve a parliamentary majority. Hence, coalition politics became the standard. Regrettably, the creation of parliamentary majorities became increasingly complicated: politicians demanded high prices in terms of patronage for their cooperation, and even members of the same party would sometimes not cooperate with each other. The number of complete cabinet changes accelerated from eight during the government of Jorge Montt (1891–1896) to seventeen under Juan Luis Sanfuentes (1915–1920). During the period of 1891–1920, more than eighty cabinets attempted to rule the nation. Since few ministries retained power long enough to formulate and implement a coherent program, the nation foundered.

Meanwhile, Chile's problems in this period desperately needed attention. The process of urbanization was crowding the nation's poor into filthy and unhealthy housing, where they perished at a higher rate than in India. Working conditions were equally perilous: men and women were injured or even died laboring in the nation's ill-ventilated factories and salitreras. The fortunes of Chile's domestic economy ebbed and flowed according to the price of nitrates. When revenues were high, the government prospered, but when they declined the nation retrenched. In bad times, the state made up its deficits by borrowing or selling off nitrate lands to private interests.

For decades, Chile's working class endured poor pay, wretched living and working conditions, and an inflation that eroded their purchasing power. Eventually, when they demanded change, the political elites, depending upon their beliefs, either could or would not respond. The post-Word War I collapse of the nitrate economy so distorted Chile's economy in conjunction with this inept political system that it forced radical change. In 1925 the nation ratified a new constitution which restored a presidential system to Chile and guaranteed the need of the state to intervene in order to address the nation's social and economic needs.

See alsoChile: The Nineteenth Century; Montt Álvarez, Jorge; Sanfuentes Andonaegui, Juan Luis.


Karen L. Remmer, "The Timing, Pace and Sequence of Political Change in Chile, 1891–1925," in Hispanic American Historical Review 57, 2 (1977): 205-230, and Party Competition in Argentina and Chile (1984), pp. 23-24, 85-86.

Additional Bibliography

Stuven, Ana María. La seducción de un orden: Las elites y la construcción de Chile en las polémicas culturales y políticas del siglo XIX. Santiago, Chile: Ediciones Universidad Católica de Chile, 2000.

Villablanca Z., Hernán. Estructuración sociopolítica y desar-rollo capitalista en Chile, 1820–1900. Santiago, Chile: Bravo y Allende Editores, 1999.

                                        William F. Sater