Pathways of Democratic Transitions: Reflections on the Chilean Experience


Speech delivered by UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet at a seminar titled, “International Forum on Pathways of Democratic Transitions, organized by UNDP in Cairo, 5 June 2011.

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Thank you for inviting me to participate in this important seminar and share some reflections on the Chilean experience of returning to democracy in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

But before entering into aspects of the Chilean transition, please allow me a brief reflection on the title of this seminar: It is indeed about pathways and not about a path to dependency.

It is crucial to understand that the processes of social struggle and the transition to democracy are unique moments for mending broken ties with the community, shaping institutions, and thinking about the country in the coming decades.

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.

Certainly there are universal values 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 each country itself and with the greatest participation of and in consultation with its civil society. The greater the participation of the entire community, the stronger the institutions they build.

And that is why I say that each society must know how to forge its own path, and this new Egypt will forge its own path.

With respect to the Chilean process, a brief recapitulation:

Chile had a long tradition of democracy prior to the coup d'état in 1973. From the time the independent republic began in the early 19th century, presidential succession took place through periodic elections.

The country experienced just one brief period of instability in the second half of the 1920s, but by 1932 it had returned to democracy. The early years of the 20th century also saw a dramatic increase in the political participation of the middle class, of workers, of people from rural areas, and beginning in 1949, of women as well.

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.

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.

And that produced a crucial turning point for the restoration of democracy. 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?

First: Try to achieve the unity of the democratic forces all along the route to be taken.

Up until 1982 or 1983, the opposition to Pinochet was splintered into various groups. Old fights between political parties resulted in diverse exit strategies for transitioning from the dictatorship. 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 begin. And it wasn't easy. My party, for example, joined the opposition strategy toward the end of 1987, but when it did, it came to the process with large grassroots and youth sectors.

What is important is that it took an enormous amount of political work to reach this procedural 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 less — remember that in the Chilean case, the legal foundation for the transition was Pinochet's own Constitution.

But what is essential is a framework that defines the territory, one that allows progress toward the normalization of the democratic institutionality.

I want to insist: we can argue about the groundwork, but it is essential to have a foundation that ensures that a government is reasonably “polyarchical, to use an expression from political science.

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.

This, in addition to the basic values of all democracies I mentioned earlier: political parties, freedom of association, of assembly, and of the press, etc.

Third: Keep an eye on the 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.

Those who participate in these processes must think of the normal functioning of institutions such as the judiciary, the armed forces, and federal or regional governments, as the case may be, or its own bureaucracy. 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.

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 tranquillity. 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.

Fifth: Do not forget that the people expect that democracy will also produce growth and wellbeing. “Democracy had to deliver.

Because Chile's transition was one of the last in Latin America, along with Paraguay's, we were able to observe the different experiences in other countries. And something that struck me from the beginning was the weakness that a democratic government could have if the young democracy does not achieve reasonable levels of growth and wellbeing for the population.

Don't be fooled by the democratic momentum at the beginning of the process. 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.

Because democratic recovery is an epic endeavour, it generates commitment in young people. It generates social movement.

For me, the day that the NO won in 1988 was just as moving as the day I won the Presidency in 2006.

But that epic heroism and commitment terminates in an ordinary democratic government, where there is bureaucracy, where there are problems that are difficult to solve, where there are negotiations in parliament, where sometimes things don't advance at the speed we would like.

Or as they say, from the poetry of the campaign falls the prose of the government.

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.

Sixth: Do not forget that in the eyes 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.

I know this proposal is controversial. In some countries, the initial option was to “turn the page. There have been many “full-stop laws in different places, but the strength of justice was greater, and in many cases, those positions were reversed.

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.

Democracy is about representation of the society that raises the relevance and pluralism and inclusiveness of all the population, the role of the women in the transition, the role of the civil society and the role of youth. Here I want to highlight the Egyptian Women's Charter, which was announced yesterday the 4th of June: Egyptian Women: Partners in the Revolution and in Building Democratic Egypt.

Egyptian women in this Charter are calling for:

  • First: Representation of women throughout the democratization process, and such representation should take into consideration their size in the population and their past, present and future role in building the society.
  • Second: Egyptian women are calling to hold commitments to all international human rights conventions, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
  • Third: Social and economic rights, and Egyptian women, particularly the poor, should have access to basic services to enable them to combine their roles at home and in society.
  • Fourth: Discriminatory legislation against women should be reviewed and redressed on the basis of equality and justice.
  • Fifth: Women in judiciary posts and ensuring equal opportunity for women to acquire judiciary posts.
  • Sixth: Egyptian women are demanding a strong national women's machinery.
  • Seventh: A national policy should be formulated to reflect a positive, fair image of women and to help create a culture with no discrimination against women.

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

A transition is much more than the holding of elections. The idea is for those processes to give rise to a healthy and vigorous democracy rather than simply ending with the election of a new government with autocratic tendencies.

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