Building Democracy: Reflections from Chile

Date: Monday, January 16, 2012

Remarks of Michelle Bachelet Executive Director of UN Women at Panel discussion on Democratic Transitions at the American University of Beirut. 16 January 2012.

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Good evening. It is wonderful to be here with you in this esteemed institution of higher learning, the American University of Beirut. I am pleased to join you tonight to speak about democratic transition, some overall reflections, and my own experiences in my home country of Chile.

The Arab Spring is now being called, by some, the Arab Fall. This makes for good headlines, no doubt, but I think that such proclamations are premature and they certainly cannot be extended across the region because every country is unique.

I have lived through a dictatorship and participated in the long and difficult transformation to democracy and, I must admit, I am an optimist. I am also a realist and have learned that change does not happen overnight.

While it is easy and fast, once action starts, to tear things down; democracy must be constructed and built from the bottom up, one block at a time, and this building of institutions, this change, takes time.

Just as it took time for the upheavals to manifest themselves in the Arab world, it will also take time for democratic transition. There are similarities between the Arab uprising and transition now and the transition in Europe after the fall in 1989 of the Berlin Wall. The exhilarating and infectious nature of the uprisings last year is similar to that of the revolutions that brought an end to communism in Europe. While the protests centered on demands for freedom and democracy, another motivating factor in the Arab world was economic discontent and this has to be actively addressed in moving forward.

The Arab world has one of the youngest populations, and no one watching images of the democratic uprisings across the region could miss seeing young women and men, standing strong at the forefront of the demonstrations. Change has been achieved through people standing up for dignity and justice and for reform and participation, and this struggle and this determination continues and inspires real hope for the future.

I witnessed the revolutionary events and the struggle for democratization that many Arab nations are undergoing from Chilean eyes: from the perspective of someone who endured a brutal regime. I would like to share some brief reflections on the Chilean experience as I believe there are important lessons to be learned.

Chile's dictatorship lasted 17 years, from 1973 to 1990, and during that time it wielded iron-fisted political and social control and, as a consequence, resulted in a systematic violation of human rights, thousands of deaths, tens of thousands of cases of torture, and hundreds of thousands of people forced into exile.

But in the case of Chile, we must speak about the process of democratic restoration, which is important to take into account because the country had a political and social fabric that served as a support for the process. Chile had a long tradition of democracy prior to the coup d'état in 1973.

The dictatorship opened up an opportunity for change seven years into its reign of power. In 1980 the dictatorship enacted a new Constitution that specified that a plebiscite would be held in 1988 to consult the citizens on whether the regime should continue until 1997.

The opposition to the dictatorship decided to participate in the plebiscite and called the Chilean people to mobilize and vote NO to the continuation of Augusto Pinochet in power. The results are well known. The NO vote won, and Pinochet simply had no choice but to leave power a year later.

What would I say are the key lessons of this process? Let me offer five.

First: Try to achieve the unity of the democratic forces

Up until 1982 or 1983, the opposition to Pinochet was splintered into various groups. But the only thing that division among democratic forces does is strengthen non-democratic forces.

Only as of 1984 did the process of dialogue and reorganization of the opposition around a common process began. And it wasn't easy. My party, for example, joined the opposition strategy toward the end of 1987.

What is important is that it took an enormous amount of political work to reach this agreement. The transition required thousands of political meetings, thousands of seminars. It meant travelling throughout the country, meeting with social leaders and union leaders and convincing them to accept the strategy.

At first, we did not even agree on how to govern once we returned to democracy, but the process, in our case of defeating the dictatorship through election, was clear.

That shows the importance of political leadership. Demonstrations may arise spontaneously — and that is good — but the process and the future democratic government will not. They need to be led.

Second: Agree upon the constitutional rules of the transition

In the Chilean case, there was negotiation with the military government after the plebiscite in 1988 and before the regime left power in order to reform certain aspects of the Constitution that limited popular sovereignty. And it was upon that base that the posterior democratization was built.

I want to clarify a point: we may or may not like these rules. We can argue whether these rules are more legitimate or not — remember that in the Chilean case, the legal foundation for the transition was Pinochet's own Constitution.

But what is essential is to possess a framework that defines the territory, one that allows progress toward the normalization of the democratic institution building.

In an ideal design, countries would decide upon certain basic aspects of functionality as they build the constitutional framework for the transition, defining, for example:

  • A calendar of the entire democratization process, from the highest executive power to local authorities.
  • The form of government, whether presidential, parliamentary, or mixed.
  • The size of the legislature, the electoral system, the definition of district boundaries, and the design of an electoral process that ensures transparency.
  • Electoral systems of justice.

Third: Keep an eye on long-term institutions

Anyone who thinks that the institutional standardization of a country is only about holding elections is mistaken. Authoritarian governments leave their mark on many other institutions.

In Chile, for example, one of the fundamental tasks of the first democratic government was precisely to bring that standardization about, change laws, modify procedures, and designate new people in each institution. As a necessary measure to ensure transparency, the best tool for avoiding corruption is accountability and reform of public administration that ensures efficiency and effectiveness.

And in certain areas, it had to yield temporarily. For example, it is a mystery to no one that Pinochet continued on as Commander-in-Chief of the Army for eight years because it was stipulated in the Constitution. But the ultimate goal of the democratic governments was to achieve total obedience of the military to civil authority, which it finally achieved.

Fourth: Bear in mind that democracy is synonymous with peace, and well-being

It is important not to forget that often in these processes the people have gone through long periods of instability and fear.

The Chilean case is very exemplary. Public opinion studies done in the late 1980s revealed that what the people most often said they wanted was to live, once and for all, in peace and tranquility. Our people suffered greatly under the dictatorship, and the last thing they wanted was for the political conflict to go on indefinitely.

Therein lies a call to the democratic forces in two ways: one is to prevent the emergence of violence from any side, and two, to be able to assure peace and order under the new democratic government.

It is also important to achieve reasonable levels of growth and wellbeing for the population. An anecdote in Chile: the slogan of the 1988 “NO to Pinochet campaign was “Happiness is Coming. But shortly after the first democratic government began, graffiti appeared around the capital that said “Happiness Never Arrived. And so, countries should be especially careful to create the conditions necessary for the new government to effectively exercise its office from the very beginning, because otherwise the public's dissatisfaction with the government can turn into dissatisfaction with democracy.

Fifth: Do not forget that in the eyes, minds and hearts of the people, democracy must be just

In this sense, democracy must know how to establish the truth, investigate and punish violations of human rights that occurred in the past, and create the necessary mechanisms for reparation and justice.

Democracy should know how to bring about justice because there is a reason that it is an ethically superior way to govern.

In the Chilean case, the route took several years — nearly ten. It began with a Commission for Truth that established the facts as they really occurred, and little by little, the courts of justice advanced.

Because democracy is the enemy of vengeance, progress in matters of human rights must always be made within a framework of the rule of law, although it takes time.

Finally, in addition to thinking about the democratic transition, it is important to consider how to strengthen the democracy overall.

Therefore, it is important to give consideration to the way the process will become stronger over time. There is the issue of institutional strengthening, as I mentioned, but also one of promoting democratic values at every level and strengthening the participation of the people. Democracy is about inclusiveness and representation and participation of the people.

And here, I would like to stress the importance of the participation of women. If a democracy neglects women's rights and participation, it is a democracy for only half its people.

UN Women stands ready to further support women's empowerment and equality in the Arab States during this time of transition. To me, it's fundamental that we cannot exclude 50 percent of world's humanity. Excluding 50 percent means wasting the extraordinary potential women have to offer!

In closing, let me stress that each country is unique and must be capable of a thorough self-examination in order to propose a new social and political contract with itself. When it comes to the transition to democracy, there is nothing worse than an adherence to imported models. Democracy must be rooted, and grown, in native soil.

Yes, there are universal values borne out of many struggles of the generations that have preceded us that must be respected: the creation of a legal system that ensures human rights; holding periodic, competitive and transparent elections; ensuring the greatest freedom of information; guaranteeing freedom of association, of assembly, and the freedom to form political parties; and so on. This is clear.

But the final format of the transition — its timing, its emphases, the institutions that will govern the process — must come from within each country itself with the greatest participation and consultation of its civil society. The greater the participation of the entire community, the stronger the institutions they build, and the better life will ultimately be for each and every human being.

I thank you.

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