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"Chile is only half of a democracy"

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Dr. Edgardo Condeza

"Chile is only half of a democracy"


Dr. Edgardo Condeza is a Chilean scholar, and the founder and president of Movimiento por la Consulta y los Derechos Ciudadanos, an organisation which promotes direct democracy in Chile. From his extensive biography we should highlight his activism on environmental topics; as well as his strong defence of the human rights and political freedoms in Chile, in particular during the long ruling of the Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet. In this interview for Democracy International, Dr. Condeza portrays the current status of direct democracy in Chile and analyses the decentralisation process and the ongoing political changes in the Andean country.

The interview is available in Spanish here

Democracy International: In 2011 students in Chile gathered in the streets to demand better education and more democracy. How is the current political situation in Chile? Were these protest the ground for new political demands?

Dr. Edgardo Condeza: The demonstration's organised by the students were a key factor for the design of the programme of the current government.  The discredit by political parties and members of the Parliament had a strong influence too. In the last presidential elections only 44% of the census voted.  Protests organised by health care workers, the mining sector, forestry workers, education, civil servants and indigenous people had a deep impact as well.

To promote direct democracy, our organisation started to organise political consultations among citizens in 20 cities. 251,544 people cast their vote.  It was the very first time in Chilean history that citizens organised a referendum.

During the student protests and due to our political know-how and experience with organising political consultations, our organisation was requested to initiate a referendum on educational policies (1, 449, 640 people voted). In addition to the different questions on education our movement lobbied for the inclusion of  a question out of the main topic: Do you agree on the need of adding to our legislation the possibility of  holding binding referendum initiated by citizens to solve national key issues? 93% of the voters supported this statement. This referendum was the first one at national level, organised by citizens and voters who had the chance to cast their vote online. In 2012, health professionals organised a plebiscite on the situation of the Chilean health care system (115,742 voters participated).

All the above mentioned referendums were just symbolic, not binding and without any legal impact: despite all of these factors citizens wished to be part of this political process. A total amount of 1, 816, 926 people voted in the different plebiscites. The different political initiatives had boosted the number of direct democracy initiatives at the local level, played a key role in the presidential campaign and the new political programme by the current government.

On 7 October 2014 a report on country's decentralisation process and democratic reforms was presented in Valparaíso, Chile.  This report was issued by Comisión Asesora Presidencial en Descentralización y Desarollo Regional; a high level expert committee backed by the Chilean president, Ms Bachelet. Do you believe that some of the reforms included in this report, among them the Constitutional reform1, can become a reality in the short and medium term? Has the president enough political and parliamentarian support to implement these reforms?

The Presidency of the Republic and the Parliament should consider now the proposals made by the experts of the report. There might be troubles and delays; nevertheless, the decentralisation process is an old political demand. Chile is the most centralised country in Latin America, but I strongly believe that many of these measures can be initiated in the medium term.

Another measure, such as the writing of a new constitutional text must wait for the next year, as already announced by the government. The new Constitution will face the opposition of the right-wing party.  In order to solve this political conflict, our organisation campaigns to hold a national referendum on whatever Chile needs or not a new Constitution and which should be the procedure to develop it. As a direct democracy organisation, the Movimiento por la Consulta y los Derechos Ciudadanos believes that the most democratic procedure is to create a constituent assembly.

Polls clearly show that a bast majority of the citizens want a new constitutional text. Just as an example, a survey stated by the University of Santiago de Chile and IPSOS (opinion poll institute) shows that 74% of the survey respondent want a new Constitution for Chile.  Asked about the procedure, 57% support the creation of a constituent assembly and only 7% of the respondents think that the Congress should draft a new Constitution.

The report issued by the experts committee contains reforms related to direct democracy.  According to the report, a referendum and a plebiscite will just have legal impact if at least 50% of the eligible citizens cast their vote. What is your opinion about this requirement?

A referendum and a plebiscite can be initiated by 5% of the eligible citizens.  The result is binding for both procedures if more than 50% of the electorate votes that took part in the previous election.

Chile is only half of a democracy. In our opinion we should create a law which guarantees that citizens can initiate and hold binding referendums at the national level.  This is an important reform. The recall of elected authorities and the citizens' initiative are also essential pillars in a real democracy. These three procedures (plebiscite, recall mechanism and the citizens' initiative) yet do not exist in the Chilean legislation.

If we do not act, the status quo will continue. All the political reforms in the country will be decided either by the Presidency of the Republic or by the Parliament, without any participation of the citizens.

The report supports the implementation of recall mechanisms. Having in mind what happened some years ago in countries  like Peru and Bolivia in which these recall mechanisms have been in place, don't you think that such a mechanisms can destabilize the Chilean political system and create political gaps (The recall mechanism suggested by the committee do not force the initiators of this mechanism to propose an alternative candidate in case the initiators reached their goal)?

Through out the whole history recall mechanisms have been in place. If a recall succeeds citizens must have the right to elect their new representative.  Recall mechanisms should concern all elected authorities. The misuse of this mechanism in some countries does not question the democratic legitimacy of this procedure.

Chile is immersed in a decentralisation process. Which kind of decentralised State model does your country pursue? A regional one like Italy? A federal one, e.g. Germany? A confederation like Switzerland?

Very similar to Italy, with powers and resources for the regions.

¡Muchas gracias! Thank you very much!

Interview by Óscar Rodríguez Fernández

Further information:

- Direct Democracy Navigator Chile

- Experts Committee Report (ES)





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