In June 2011, students recreated the dance scenes from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video outside the presidential palace. The choreography symbolized how Chile’s education system had turned them into zombies. Since then, workers, environmentalists, feminists, indigenous groups, and many others have joined the protest. This recent surge of social mobilization in Chile contrasts with the marked demobilization that followed the reinstatement of democracy in 1990. The rallies and demonstrations have sparked a public debate on the need to foster institutionalized ways for citizens to channel their disgruntlement. This wave of protest has once again raised awareness of the detachment between the country’s political elites and its citizens and how, in turn, this fuels protests. But how did Chile get here? In 1990, democracy was reinstituted in Chile after 17 years of military rule. The political polarization and gridlock of the 1970s has had long-lasting consequences on Chile’s post-transition politics. The country’s leaders made the assessment that excessive populist pressure contributed to the breakdown of democracy and led to the coup d’état in 1973. Ironically, to consolidate democracy, Chile’s center-left governments have reinforced an aversion to popular mobilization and have offered few incentives or institutional spaces for citizen participation. Authoritarian enclaves passed down by the military regime constrained the coalition government in power from 1990 to 2010. With its cautious approach, the government has only promoted gradual reforms and built consensus internally, without public input. Throughout the 1990s, participation in political parties and unions declined.
At the same time, an ever-growing distrust in political institutions signaled widespread discontent. Taking aim at these challenges, the government passed a law in 2011 to engage citizens in public administration and to facilitate the creation of formal organizations.
Since the center-left regained power in 2014, it has faced a series of corruption scandals that have further deteriorated the public’s trust in government. However, it has embarked upon a set of reforms to improve the country’s standards of transparency and introduce public financing of political parties. But the gulf between elites and the public has restricted the prospects for building the socio-political alliances needed to push for far-reaching reforms.
Reconnecting the country’s government to its citizenry is one of the key challenges facing Chile’s democracy today. In early 2016, a presidential commission was unveiled with the task of revising the implementation of the 2011 law and proposing ways to enhance citizen engagement. The government has proposed a series of “citizen dialogues” to discuss the content of a new constitution to replace the one left by the military regime. Limited public involvement in this initiative, however, showcases the absence of a culture of political participation. The current efforts to address distrust in political institutions and encourage citizen engagement are important first steps, but the scale of this challenge requires that politicians further push the participatory agenda. As of today, it is not clear that either the government or the people have the will.
Disponible en World Policy Journal 2016 Volume 33, Number 3: 1-5