Chile is frequently considered the gem of democracy in Latin American, but recent protests reveal that Chile’s democracy is unstable and rapidly deteriorating. Ongoing protests over rampant inequality sparked by a rise in subway fare began in October, resulting in excessive use of police force endorsed by President Piñera. “We are at war against a powerful enemy, willing to use violence with no limits,” Piñera stated, effectively endorsing the largest deployment of military force since Pinochet’s dictatorship in the 1980s. Piñera’s violent response to the protests, automatically attempting to suppress them before making concessions put Chile’s democracy in a precarious position.
Piñera’s response to the protests, initially declaring war on his own people, indicates the fragility of Chile’s democracy. His initial statement encouraged violent police methods, leading to at least twenty deaths and thousands of injuries. The excessive force has also created numerous concerns over civil rights in Chile, as reports of sexual abuse and torture have been reported. The government’s harsh response to the protests has essentially revoked the rights to freedom of speech and assembly, two necessary conditions of a liberal democracy, such as Dahl’s polyarchy . Although the polyarchy is held up as the ideal standard, it is hard to even consider Chile a democracy when people are killed for expressing a desire to correct Chile’s rampant income inequality, and when such a wide gap between the elites and the masses exists at all. However, in a basic definition of democracy which only includes the freeness/fairness of elections (such as Diamond’s electoral democracy), Chile still qualifies due to Piñera and other officials’ lawful elections .
Although Piñera was lawfully elected twice, his statements in response to the protest are key indicators of an authoritarian leader, as he denies the legitimacy of the people’s claims, declared war on his own people, and restricted civil rights through institution of curfews and allowance of torture. His actions indicate that he is unwilling to accept the desires of the people, trying to violently suppress the protesters before agreeing to revise the constitution . Piñera’s sudden authoritarian crackdown is concerning for the future of Chilean democracy, since the rights of the masses have been severely limited since the onset of the protests. If the Chilean people cannot safely express dissent, Chile will continue to slide backwards towards the authoritarianism of Pinochet’s regime.
Chile has relied on the same constitution since 1980, even though it was written during Pinochet’s dictatorship. Although protesters successfully forced Piñera to agree to hold a referendum to draft a new constitution in April, it would not take effect until late 2021, marking potential for sustained protests. Although this will be a step towards restoring Chile’s democracy, continuing protests indicate that the people desire real change faster than the government will provide. Unless Chile’s new constitution addresses the inequalities that sparked protests, it is likely that the protests will continue. There is also no guarantee that Piñera and other political elites will accept a new constitution which increases the powers of the masses.
In conclusion, the Chilean protests mark a lack of legitimacy of the government, and with protests showing no signs of ending, Chilean democracy is left in a vulnerable position. Piñera has used his legally obtained presidential powers of declaring a national emergency and deploying police forces to inhibit the actions of the masses in extreme measures, revoking their civil liberties to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Although there appears to be a chance for democratic revival with the new constitution, with Piñera’s authoritarian streak exposed, there is cause for concern about Chile’s democracy regardless of the constitutional outcome. Clearly, Piñera’s violent response to the protests have removed some of the luster of Chile’s once shining democracy.