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  • Chile After PinochetLessons from the Past, Hopes for the Future
  • Edgardo Boeninger (bio)

What lessons have been learned from the breakdown of Chilean democracy in the 1970s, the lengthy period of authoritarian rule, and the transition back to democracy?

Democracy cannot be taken for granted. Not even a longstanding political tradition and democratic culture can prevent the breakdown of democracy if confrontation and extreme polarization prevail over a lengthy period of time. Legitimacy erodes and institutions crumble. Finally, some contender—usually on the right—ends up knocking successfully at the gates of the barracks.

Democracy means not only majority rule, but also a due regard for the rights of minorities. Should a government attempt to make drastic changes in the socioeconomic system—as was the case in Chile under Allende—the threatened sectors will decide that democracy is no longer able to protect their basic values and interests. A "coup mentality" is the likely result. It follows that if democracy is to survive, change must be gradual in pace and moderate in content. Revolution will neither preserve nor lead to democracy.

Minority governments—which Chile has had under all its elected presidents in the last three decades—are inherently weak and unstable, and inevitably push themselves into crisis situations if they put radical, [End Page 13] ideologically motivated reform at the top of their political agendas. The breakdown of democracy in Chile was preceded by a continually recurring struggle between the presidency and a hostile congressional majority.

Government requires a stable political majority if it is to perform effectively. In a fragmented polity like that of Chile, no single party can expect to win the support of more than 35 percent of the population. Political coalitions are essential for majority rule, a requirement the Chilean political system was unable to fulfill because of ideological divisions and confrontational politics.

The Chilean Left learned the hard way—through exile, torture, and proscription—to appreciate political freedoms as essential to human progress. The loss of citizenship was felt as an unbearable deprivation. The continuing shift among European socialist parties toward moderate social democratic platforms and market-oriented economics has also heavily influenced the Chilean Left. Fifteen years of dictatorship contributed decisively to accelerating a similar process in Chile, long before the dramatic collapse of communism in Eastern Europe put a sudden end to lingering remnants of Marxist orthodoxy. Never again will democracy be threatened from the left of our political spectrum.

The Chilean Right, in turn, has learned an important lesson from the demise of the Pinochet regime. Authoritarianism, even when backed by highly professional armed forces, cannot survive indefinitely if rejected by the majority of the people. Our conservative establishment lived for a time under the illusion that the Left could be barred forever from the political system. It is now evident that ideology and political attachments will never be eradicated by the use of force and that, in the long run, political power in Chile can only be gained at the ballot box in free and fair elections.

The comparatively good performance of the Chilean economy in recent years (including entrepreneurial development, growth of exports, relatively low inflation, and balanced budgets), the increasing prevalence of market economies all around the world, and the breakdown of the socialist economies in Eastern Europe have combined to convince most Chileans that sustained growth requires a leading role for private enterprise and a competitive market economy.

At the same time, the defeat of General Pinochet in the 1988 plebiscite and of his former finance minister Hernáin Büchi in the 1989 elections clearly shows that economic performance, if measured only by growth and macroeconomic equilibria, does not ensure continued social support in a developing country such as ours. Governments must be perceived as being sensitive to the needs of the people and judged effective in solving social problems. Policies relying solely on the "trickle-down" effects of growth to overcome poverty and inequality will sooner or later end in social unrest and political instability. [End Page 14]

What are the principal remaining dangers or challenges to the successful consolidation of a stable democracy, both in the near future and over the longer term...


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