Chile is a South American country that has witnessed significant polarization in its politics and social dimensions. In the following analysis, the discussion will focus on the attempt at depolarization by Chile from 1980 to 2021. McCoy, Rahman, and Somer (2018) define polarization as where the various societal differences significantly align along on dimension and individuals perceive and describe society and politics in terms of “Us” versus “Them.” Even though there was a successful attempt to depolarize post-authoritarian rule by Pinochet, Chile still faces a significant polarization.
Polarization in Chile emerged during the military rule led by Pinochet in the 1980s. One of the ways that polarization emerges is through the elimination of democracy. Ziblatt (2018) states that authoritarians destroy democratic institutions slowly or in a fell swoop. For Chile, the democratic institutions were eliminated in one fell swoop through a coup. Ruiz-Rodríguez (2005) states that in 1973 after Coup, Chile’s president, Salvador Allende, and his government were overthrown by the military, which resulted in years of severe political polarization. After the coup, the authoritarian military rule would start a highly polarized era. The military rule was successful in destroying democracy because of the ruling with an iron fist. Chileans were not allowed to go against the military government because any resistance was faced by imprisonment, torture, or certain death (Svolik, 2019). In an article by Feinberg (2019) titled Chileans learned the right lessons after the Pinochet era, the author describes how the country was polarized during the 1980s. According to the author, there was a polarization between left-leaning socialists and democrats and the extreme free-market right and the center-left governments that have created a social initiative helping the poor and middle classes. However, the political right has preserved major neo-liberal model elements that favor the private offering of social services and physical infrastructure. Feinberg (2019) points out that the constitution preserved the right economic concept in the 1980s that was part of Pinochet’s rule. The model allowed domination of the economy to the private sector that was usually supported by the government monetary transfers. The disadvantaged were reliant on public health clinics and schools of varying quality, while the middle class would pay for better quality, private social services. Water resources and roads were licensed to private firms who charged high rates.
Chile’s polarization emerged after all the democratic institutions could not counter the military rule. McCoy and Somer (2021) write that polarized leaders usually aim to change the constitutional order to ensure unfair electoral advantages or skew the workings of the judiciary or similar institutions. In a similar strategy, the Chilian authoritarian military rule set up a constitution that would have facilitated a 20-year rule. Pinochet wanted to give legitimacy to the military regime, and the junta structured a new constitution adopted in 1980 (Rodríguez, 2005). Even though the constitution allowed a referendum in 1988 for the Chilean people to determine the military rule continuation, it was also a strategy that would have added another ten years to Pinochet. Therefore, if the majority voted “Yes,” Pinochet would have ruled for another ten years; a “no” vote meant that he was defeated, elections would be had to identify a new president. In the end, a “no” vote was successful, which marked the first step of depolarization.
An attempt at depolarization in Chile emerged in the late 1980s through democratization. Ruiz-Rodríguez (2005) writes that the democratization process started with the referendum held in 1988, followed by presidential and congressional elections by 1989 that facilitated the re-emergence of political parties. Both the elections and the referendum demonstrated the parties’ capability to consolidate into alliances as an adaptive approach to Pinochet’s electoral system. The processes showed that most Chileans supported the parties that formed Concertación de Partidos Por la Democracia (CPPD) an opposition to the authoritarian regime (Ruiz-Rodríguez, 2005). The democratization of Chile led to a successful depolarization of the country, as observed with the economic growth. As highlighted by Feinberg (2019), who claims the end of the authoritarian rule saw a growth of gross domestic product at an average of 4.7 percent yearly between 1990 and 2018 and an increase in social spending by the democratic governments that eliminated extreme poverty.
Even though the attempt of depolarization was effective, key areas were not addressed that have made Chile maintain polarization. An article in the Washington Post by Faiola (2021) with the title Chile’s election is a window into Latin America’s polarization highlights some contemporary issues that have made Chile polarized. The journalist writes much of Chile is prevalent with high rates of inequality and most of its population living above the poverty line. Faiola (2021) also adds that the country is among the most economically unjust countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, with poorer groups facing untenable living costs where 60 percent of households earn little that can address their monthly expenses. The peak of the polarization emerged in 2019 through social action. The social explosion was because of an increase in transit fares. Still, the issue emerged from lower-income Chilean youth who believed they were prevented from moving to upper social classes because of nepotism and the class connections in Chile’s economic elites (Faiola, 2021). The authoritarian rule that created polarization has been replaced with the autocrats buying their way to wealth and increasing inequality in Chile.
In sum, the authoritarian military rule by Pinochet resulted in the polarization of Chile. Democratization eventually occurred and led to economic growth and more support by the public. However, recently polarization has emerged because of the inequality in the country that has been blamed on the autocrats blocking the poor from growing economically by using nepotism and connections by the economic elite.
Faiola, A. (2021). Chile’s election is a window into Latin America’s polarization. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/11/24/chile-latin-america-polarization-election/
Feinberg, R., E. (2019). Chileans learned the right lessons after the Pinochet era. Brookings. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/11/18/chileans-learned-the-right-lessons-after-the-pinochet-era/
McCoy, J., & Somer, M. (2021). Overcoming polarization. Journal of Democracy, 32(1), 6-21.
McCoy, J., Rahman, T., & Somer, M. (2018). Polarization and the global crisis of democracy: Common patterns, dynamics, and pernicious consequences for democratic polities. American Behavioral Scientist, 62(1), 16-42.
Ruiz-Rodríguez, L. M. (2005). Polarization in the Chilean party system: changes and continuities, 1990-1999.
Svolik, M. W. (2019). Polarization versus democracy. Journal of Democracy, 30(3), 20-32.
Ziblatt, D. (2018). How democracies die.