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  • Redemocratization in Chile
  • Manuel Antonio Garretón (bio)

Political democratization is the process of establishing, strengthening, or extending the principles, mechanisms, and institutions that define a democratic regime. 1 This may be done through democratic founding, meaning the generation of a democratic regime for the first time in a given society. It may also be done through political redemocratization where a democratic regime had existed previously and was replaced by an authoritarian one. Or it may be done through the extension or deepening of existing democratic institutions where the point of departure is a semidemocratic or protodemocratic regime. Transitions to democracy belong to the second type of political democratization. In Latin America over the last few decades, we have witnessed very few foundings (Central America), some extensions (Mexico and Colombia), and numerous transitions from authoritarian, usually military, regimes (Southern Cone).

Political redemocratization consists of several phases. The first is transition, meaning the initial passage from an authoritarian or military regime to a basic set of democratic institutions. Transition ends with the inauguration of the new democratic government. Both transition and inauguration must be distinguished from consolidation, that is, the strengthening of the new regime over a period of time.

While a transition generally has a fairly distinct starting and ending point, consolidation is difficult to define. One fruitful approach is to identify factors that contribute to the maintenance of democracy over time and that vary from one society to another. It may also prove [End Page 146] helpful to distinguish consolidation from what it is not, such as meaningfulness—that is, democracy’s capacity to fulfill the tasks that are proper to a regime. In other words, a democracy can become consolidated, yet remain unable to cope with the problems that it is supposed to solve (governance, citizenship, and institutional frameworks for resolving demands and conflicts).

The most salient feature of redemocratization in contemporary Latin America is its limited, strictly political, character. With so many Latin transitions beginning from the starting point of military rule, their dominant motif is negotiation and institutional mediation between power-holders and opposition. Such transitions typically occur within the institutional framework of the authoritarian regime, with one of the opposition’s main problems being how to work from within this framework in order to change it and achieve democratic institutions. The outcome, not surprisingly, is often incomplete democracy, a regime basically democratic but riddled with inherited authoritarian enclaves: nondemocratic institutions, unresolved human rights problems, and social actors not fully willing to play by democratic rules.

New democratic governments must therefore seek to eliminate (or at least contain) authoritarian enclaves with one hand, while initiating the process of consolidation with the other. In Latin America today, democratization is related to a new phase of socioeconomic development and modernization as well as to profound political change. Democratic consolidation is thus associated with two tasks. The first is the definition of a new model for economic development and insertion into the world economy that can point the way to the elimination of structural poverty. The second is the transformation of relations among the state, political parties, and social actors in a manner aimed at strengthening their autonomy and mutual complementarity.

From Crisis to Plebiscite

Any attempt to understand the transition in Chile must begin with a look at the period from the military regime’s first crisis in 1981–82 to the plebiscite of 5 October 1988, in which voters rejected another eight-year presidential term for dictator Augusto Pinochet. 2 The main issue of this period for the regime was whether it could maintain itself according to the terms of its own institutionalization. For the opposition, the question was whether it could unite and find a way to turn the partial crisis of the regime into a final one.

The democracy reinaugurated on 11 March 1990 succeeded a military regime that had partially resolved its own socioeconomic crisis. The period 1982–89 was not just a time of crisis management; it also saw economic recovery and recomposition. Unlike many of its counterparts elsewhere in Latin America, the democratic government that took office [End Page 147] in Chile in 1990 did not inherit an economic crisis. True, the...

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