The Chilean convention is inclined to remove power from the president and eliminate the Senate | International

Less than three weeks before April 29, when the work of the commissions working on a proposal for a new Constitution in Chile will end, the plenary session of the constituent body plans to vote next Wednesday on the norms on the political system, Government, Legislative Power and electoral system. It’s a considered matter the heart of a Magna Carta, a kind of machine room, which has concentrated a good part of the tensions between the different lefts, because the right has a minority representation in all instances. According to big deal reached at the end of March, as it was officially called, the commission will propose to all the conventional ones an attenuated presidentialism and an asymmetrical bicameralism, which would imply the disappearance of the Senate, one of the first institutions of the Chilean Republic, from the beginning of the century XIX. They must reach two thirds of support, that is, 103 votes, so that these norms are part of the draft of the proposal for the Constitution, which will be plebiscited on September 4 with a mandatory vote.

It is a delicate moment for the convention. Different opinion polls have shown in the last week the upward trend of those who will reject the proposal in the plebiscite and the decrease of those who will approve. Feedback’s poll was the first to show opt-out leading the way: 44% vs. 41%. It is a significant decrease considering that in the entry plebiscite, in October 2020, almost 80% were for a new Constitution. President Gabriel Boric himself has shown his “concern” and called on the conventionalists to “seek the greatest possible transversality and breadth.” It is a counterpoint to what the president himself stated at the beginning of March, when he said that any result of the text will be better than the one written by four generals, alluding to the current Constitution.

One of the central issues is related to a new legislative drawing. The Legislative Branch, as at present, will have two chambers. But, unlike today, there will not be two mirror chambers, but rather a political one (the Congress of Deputies and Deputies, alluding to its parity composition) and a Chamber of the Regions that would represent the different territories in the legislative discussion (which would replace the Senate). What is proposed points to an asymmetrical system, because the legislative discussion will begin and end in the political chamber, with obvious pre-eminence over the territorial chamber, which will only review and cannot substantially change what is decided by the deputies. It will only be able to rule on some specific matters, unlike today.

“The Senate – or the Chamber of the Regions – would lose a lot of power. Nowadays, each chamber has the same functions, the legislative process can start with one or the other and, after a project is approved, it is repeated in the next chamber. If a project enters the Chamber of Deputies, therefore, today the Senate must always review it. The proposal, however, would take away from the Upper House that power of total revision and of substantially modifying a bill,” explains constitutionalist Tomás Jordán, an academic at the Alberto Hurtado University. “With the new model, the Upper House would have two clear definitions. On the one hand, it will be a reviewing chamber and, on the other, regional representation that it does not have today, since it is a political chamber just like the Chamber of Deputies. What is pending is to increase its attributions so that it also fulfills a role as a counterweight to power”, assures Jordán.

The disappearance of the Chilean Senate worries broad sectors of the center-left. “I think [la eliminación del Senado] It is a serious mistake,” said Ricardo Lagos, former socialist president (2006-2010), who called for the convention to correct its course and expressed concern about the decision to declare the Chilean state plurinational, among other issues, such as the replacement of the judiciary. for a justice system. For the former president, “the division of powers comes from Montesquieu, 200 years ago (…). Discussing now whether the Judiciary is power or not is power”, he leaves him “uncomfortable”.

For the majorities that today make up the convention – the leftists – the Legislative Power does not work properly, because a systemic problem is observed in its relationship with the Executive Power. Today, it is difficult for a president to carry out his program, because he usually has a minority in at least one chamber (as happened recently to Sebastián Piñera and to the current president himselfGabriel Boric, no majority in either). The relationship, therefore, remains locked. Regarding the Senate in particular, it has been substantiated that it paralyzes political changes and, among other issues, it is attributed to citizen support, because it was in this chamber where the scandals due to irregular financing of politics took place.

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“It is true that a large majority of the citizenry would choose to eliminate the Senate. It is also true that this great majority would also choose to eliminate the Chamber of Deputies. It is implausible to try to throw out the Senate by appealing to the citizenry”, assured a few days ago the electoral expert Cristián Valdivieso.

Among the socialist senators, who have opposed the disappearance of the current Senate, some point out that it is a matter of political calculation. Today, the center-left is the ruling party’s predominant force in this chamber, with 18 seats, while the Broad Front and the Communist Party have just five. If this proposal is approved in plenary on Wednesday and if on September 4 the citizens support the new Fundamental Charter in the plebiscite, about half of the senators in office would remain without serving half of their term (2022-2030), because the changes would be implemented in 2026, according to Minister Giorgio Jackson. In any case, this matter will be determined later in transitory regulations.

The vote in plenary on Wednesday will be the second attempt of the commission working on this issue. On March 18, the agreement was practically completely rejected in the plenary session made up of the 154 conventional parties. Since then, the 25 constituents had to negotiate again to reach a proposal that would convince two-thirds of the convention and –except for the right and conventional those linked to the extinct center-left Concertación–, from the socialists to the left they agreed on a text . “The current agreement represents a significant improvement over the previous one. However, the asymmetrical bicameral system is ruling in favor of the Congress of Deputies and Deputies and leaves the chamber of the regions somewhat helpless. It seems essential to strengthen its attributions in this constitutional stage of Chile, where the decentralization of power towards territories other than the capital is taking place”, explains Valeria Palanza, from the Network of Political Scientists and professor at the Catholic University of Chile.

In the proposal that will be voted on Wednesday in the plenary session, there is talk of political organizations, not of parties or movements, which must have certain rules of internal democracy and parity. This point, agreed by the majority of the commission in charge of the issue, worries sectors that observe an equivalence between parties and political movements. According to the text, these organizations will have a maximum eligibility threshold of 3%. That is, to enter Congress they will not be able to exceed that percentage, with the obvious risk of atomization. For the left, meanwhile, it is a formula to distribute power.

Although some sectors even clamored for a parliamentarism, finally the agreement that the convention will know in a few days proposes a attenuated presidentialism, without the figure of vice president or a government minister, as was one of the possibilities of the left. But the president will lose power with respect to the present, “because today he has a series of powers to command politics and to impose himself against Congress in the event that is hostile to him, such as the exclusive initiative in legislative matters such as spending, the creation of public services or taxes”, Jordán exemplifies. According to the political scientist Palanza, there are nine thematic areas where Congress cannot initiate legislation, which is added to the qualified majorities necessary to process certain laws. “The Chilean presidential system, as it exists today, places so much power in the hands of the presidency – especially in the legislative process – that the powers are not controlling each other,” says Palanza.

Among other issues, the proposal that will be voted on Wednesday in plenary session – which would have the necessary 103 votes, so it would go to the draft – lowers the minimum age to run for president from 35 to 30 years, establishes the presidential period in four years with the possibility of immediate or subsequent reelection (unlike today, because in Chile there is no option to reapply) and compulsory voting in popular elections from the age of 18. People between 16 and 17, however, could also exercise their right to vote.

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