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Chapter 17

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
History of Chile

Luis Galdames

translated and edited by Isaac Joslin Cox
Russell & Russell
New York 1964

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 19

 p361  Chapter XVIII
The Parliamentary Republic

Bases of the Parliamentary Regime

The revolution of 1891 was a serious incident in the constitutional life of the republic. With it there fell not only a president but also the presidential authority. It was an entire political system that collapsed. All parties helped to break it down, even the one that created it, the conservative party — the party that counted among its first and most glorious traditions the Constitution of 1833.

That code had made of the president of the republic a strong, invincible authority. In him were concentrated all the powers of the state. He not only directed the administration of the country, but controlled the congressional elections and appointed his successor. The courts of justice, the army and the navy as well, and all public functionaries depended directly on him; and the intendants and governors — his immediate representatives in the provinces — with the policy and alcaldes of their jurisdiction, held the entire nation in one single net of authority.

As we have seen before, that authority, nearly omnipotent, suffered no curtailment while the government was directed by the conservatives. When the liberals came into power they weakened it not a little with several constitutional reforms. But in spite of the fact that in their program freedom of suffrage held first place, and in spite of the fact that the revolutions of 1851 and 1859 had been fought in their name, they did not deprive the president of the republic of his greatest power, that of intervention in governmental affairs. The liberal presidents intervened in elections just as did the conservatives whenever the opportunity presented itself. Thus conditions continued during the sixty years between 1831 and 1891.

But the ruling social class, whose culture and wealth continued to increase, thus opening new horizons to their ambitions, no longer accepted the tutelage of the executive. The conservatives abominated it, for since their fall from power they suffered from electoral intervention as much as they had formerly profited by it. The liberals, who, in their turn, enjoyed it as much as they had formerly disliked it, were divided: some sided with the government, others were against it. The latter now came to hate intervention,  p362 and they constituted that formidable majority in congress which, founded on constitutional rights, dared to resist the wishes of President Balmaceda.

The old principle of electoral liberty sprang up anew and was carried by the opposition as its standard of battle. To it was added the autonomous commune, which was to be its most solid bulwark, and the parliamentary system, which was to be its crown and guarantee. The old presidential regime was finally conquered on the fields of Concón and Placilla,​1 and there was no delay in applying the principles proclaimed by the conquerors.

At the end of the same year, 1891, the new Law of Municipalities​2 was passed. It divided the country into a number of communes, each of which should be administered by its municipal council whose members, or regidores, elected by popular vote, were to hold office three years. The powers granted to these corporations were very broad, more ample even than those that formerly pertained to the governors in their departments. The health, cleanliness, and embellishment of towns, the promotion of public education and of all industries, and maintenance of a standing police force were a part of their working program.

But no power was more important from the political point of view than the establishing of the electoral power. The enrollment of citizens, and popular balloting for their own municipal officers, for deputies, senators, and the president of the republic fell under its control. And as the municipalities were administered in absolute independence of the executive power, the latter, which had previously controlled elections by means of governors, intendants, and alcaldes selected for its convenience, from that moment lost all influence in determining the authorities of the State. The "autonomous commune," consisting as it did in that freedom of the municipality to manage the services and interests of each locality, thus put an end to the already worn-out official intervention in elections.

If to the above be added the Law of Parliamentary Incompatibility,​3 issued in the time of Balmaceda but only now put in practice, we have the complete annihilation of presidential omnipotence. By this last law, legislative offices were closed to all employees paid  p363 by the State; therefore no official could, from then on, enter congress and continue at the same time to hold his other office. The object of this requirement was to prevent the selection of any public employee by the president to defend his policy in either of the houses.

In this way, then, the parliamentary regime was firmly established. This meant that the president would either govern in accord with a congressional majority or not at all. The free election of congress and of the president guaranteed harmony between both powers. Thus was realized the old longing for electoral liberty, but not the balanced harmony which they wanted.

What followed in practice, though contrary to what had happened before, did not change the constitution of the republic in any fundamental way. In place of the old omnipotence of the president was substituted the omnipotence of congress. The situation may be explained very simply. When the chief of state caused the majorities of the houses to be chosen according to his desire, there rarely was a conflict between them and him because they were chosen for the express purpose of avoiding such conflict; and, if for any reason such a conflict occurred, it was settled almost always in accordance with his desire. In the parliamentary system, congress was chosen by popular election, independent of executive power, and its majorities were made up in an equally independent manner; and, as the president could not govern except in accord with these majorities, the result was that he had to submit to them in all his acts.

Majorities were dependent upon circumstances; more than that, they were generally composed of political groups of differing principles, which appointed their respective delegates to occupy the ministerial offices. These at once tried to superimpose the interests of their group on those of their allies; if the president yielded to their claims, ministerial solidarity was broken and the group that thought itself injured withdrew its ministers. The conflict thus presented between the parliamentary majority and the president then resolved itself into a fall of the ministry, an occurrence so frequent in the course of the years, 1892‑1894, that the instability of ministries came to constitute the normal system of government. Ordinarily two or three months did not pass without the break-up of a cabinet. Cases were cited of cabinets that lasted a week or only a day. They were, to be sure, peaceful conflicts, but it is no less certain that through them public administration was disturbed and frustrated and that the most important affairs of  p364 national interest were subjected to delay and postponement. Under such a system, it was never possible to undertake methodical and continuous governmental work.4

With such a degree of instability, the functioning of government was seriously compromised. The real governors were not the chiefs of state, but the leaders of parties through whose committees must pass all public business. In this manner it was planned to make the presidency a purely decorative office, or at most a conciliatory element. The government lost its unity. There was no one man responsible for its operation. It was impersonal and divided. Private interests, under cover of this situation, tried to place themselves above the common interest and did so more than once. The yearly budgets were burdened with useless and enormous sums in order to pay electoral services with administrative offices or to meet binding obligations. There was financial waste and administrative disorganization. Members of congress intervened in public offices, intimidated the officials, wearied them with their demands. Even the parties came to contract their alliances on the bases of distributing high offices among their supporters.

Political Parties and Methods

The plethora of fiscal wealth, as we have noted, permitted the budgets to be inflated for electoral purposes. Moreover, the multitude of political parties in which congress, even more than the country, was divided, helped to aggravate the difficulties of the parliamentary regime. During the period of conservative control there were only two parties: conservative and liberal. During the liberal regime there were four: conservative, liberal, national, and radical. These last three frequently united and were considered as a single entity, "liberalism." To the four mentioned above the following were added: the liberal-democratic, formed by a political nucleus that had favored President Balmaceda during the revolution; the democratic, created previously (1887), but whose parliamentary representation did not have any influence until long afterward; and the liberal-independent, a party without a popular basis, very small, and the only one in congress without a recognized program, holding the views which the individual judgments of its members considered opportune.5

 p365  The almost absolute predominance of the leaders tended to make those groups into personal parties, without much regard for their programs. In general, they preferred not to concern themselves with programs because among members of the same group it was difficult to agree on any point whatever. They acted for the most part only on matters of practical interest, such for example as economic measures. When, therefore, any one of those problems was carried to the houses, it would be declared an open question; that is to say, a question on which anyone could argue as he pleased without compromising his party or provoking internal divisions. What really happened was that all groups lacked coherence and unity of purpose in reference to the material interests of the country. In these matters parties have never existed in Chile, only men capable of understanding its material affairs.

"Moral interests" alone established clear lines of demarcation between the parties, and in these were centered educational and religious ideals. Considered from this point of view, there were only two parties that held definite doctrines — the conservatives and the radicals. The former believed that the State should educate as little as possible and this from the religious point of view, allowing private individuals full liberty to teach; the State, moreover, should protect the Catholic faith by all means in its power. The radical party held that the State must be, as far as possible, the only educator, and that instruction in the schools should be obligatory, free, and secular in all branches, without interfering with teaching by private persons if carried on under state supervision. As for religion, the State should maintain absolute freedom in belief, even to the separation of Church and State. To these questions, both groups applied the term "doctrinaire."

But none of the political groups had sufficient power to govern by itself alone. Every group had to unite with related or antagonistic groups in order to make a parliamentary majority. The two extreme groups, the radical and the conservative, were always enemies, in spite of the fact that they entered upon the revolution of 1891 together and on more than one occasion afterward were united in the government.

The liberal nucleus, called doctrinaire because it tried to maintain the traditions of the historic party, ordinarily remained united with the radical; in turn, the democratic liberals served as the party of the center; the side to which they adhered had the majority  p366 for several years. Radicals, doctrinaire-liberals, and democratic-liberals often constituted, and as often dissolved, the so‑called liberal alliance. On the other hand conservatives, nationals, and democratic-liberals many times made up the so‑called liberal-conservative coalition. Democrats and independents were incorporated in one or the other combination, according to the issue of the moment; that is to say, according to their electoral, political, and administrative preferences.

The Presidents and the Political Combinations

The instability of the above party combinations was especially shown in the presidential elections. Those battlefields then were invariably shifted. Without taking into account the elevation of Jorge Montt, raised to power by the triumphant revolutionists of 1891, the liberal-conservative coalition, joined in the next election by men of other parties, gave the supreme magistracy to Federico Errázuriz Echaurren, son of the president of the same name, by so small a majority over his competitor, Vicente Reyes, if it was a majority at all, that congress had to decide the election (1896). But the liberal alliance, reinforced in like manner by men of all parties, took revenge in the following election of 1901 by elevating Germán Riesco to the presidency of the republic with a two-thirds majority over the coalition candidate, Pedro Montt.

In 1906 the political groups split up so much in trying to select a successor to President Riesco that the designations "coalition" and "alliance" disappeared. The so‑called national union, composed of radicals, nationals, doctrinaire-liberals, and a dissenting group from the conservative party, backed the candidacy of Pedro Montt, the very statesman who was beaten five years previously by the same powerful radical-liberal alliance. "Administrative regeneration" founded on a "political truce" was the platform on which two thirds of the electoral body of the country grouped themselves and gave Montt a victory as great as his previous defeat. Fifteen years of futile party struggles, during which governmental instability and the disorganization of public services had come to deplorable extremes, justified that program and that change in opinion.

At this time, the son of the president of the ten years from 1851 to 1861 was looked upon as the representative of a vigorous political system, capable of carrying out a positive program of national interest. His candidacy, thus considered, meant a protest  p367 against the system installed after the late revolution. It was the desire, at his election, to restore to the office of president of the republic at least a great part, if not all, of its traditional influence.

All this was useless. From the first, President Montt's activity was hampered by parliamentary groups that scarcely permitted him to develop his program. Although he tried to impose and did impose his powerful personality on the government, in conformity with his well known energetic character, he only obtained from congress the passage of a few important laws, among them that for the "longitudinal railroad" which was to unite the country from Tacna to Puerto Montt.

As an example of the impotence which the authority of the chief of state had now reached, we may recall two acts of his administration. During all his political life, the president had been a fervid and unwavering supporter of a metallic system of money; yet he was constrained by congress to issue thirty million pesos in paper money, and afterward, when trying to put into practice the redemption of all paper money circulating in 1909, as the law of emission ordered, congress issued a new law postponing that financial operation until 1915. The president vetoed this last law, but was beaten by congress, which insisted upon it by more than the necessary two-thirds majority.

In the midst of the disappointments that beset his administrative tasks, the president contracted a serious illness, went to Europe for treatment, and had barely reached Bremen when he died there, in August, 1910, more than a year before completing his term of office. He was succeeded by Elías Fernández Albano, the vice-president, who also died at the beginning of September. Then the oldest minister in office, Emiliano Figueroa, assumed the chief magistracy with the title of vice-president.

The country was preparing to celebrate the first centenary of independence and almost all the foreign ambassadors who had come to attend the festivities were already in Santiago. The liberal convention, previously summoned to select a candidate for the presidency in Montt's place, met a few days later, and at the end of a week of prolonged voting nominated the old and illustrious statesman, Ramón Barros Luco. The conservative party concurred in this nomination and Barros Luco was unanimously elected at the polls. He assumed the presidency on December 23, 1910, and completed his normal term.

The sudden political transformation, brought about in the course of a few days with absolute regard for the provisions of the constitution,  p368 showed how profoundly orderly sentiment and respect for law were rooted among all the inhabitants of the republic, and caused the foreigners who were visiting the country to form a very favorable impression of its republican organization. They were right, no doubt, seeing that similar progress had not yet been attained by any other Hispanic American country. Nevertheless, had they been given an opportunity to see the functioning of the electoral system which served as a basis for that political regime, they would not perhaps have failed to make serious amendments to their reports.

In reality, the parliamentary system not only exercised powerful influence in directing public affairs; it modified also electoral habits in a way that was nothing less than deplorable. For the abuses of former governmental intervention with its imprisonments, its soldiers, and its executions, it substituted the intervention of money, the free purchase of the vote. Although prohibited and punished by law, bribery was a deplorable reality. The parties did not seek to send the most capable men to congress, but the richest — those able to pay for an election. If ability was united to fortune, good; if not, that also was good. In any case, money was indispensable. An election as deputy might cost from 20,000 to 100,000 pesos, and an election as senator, from 100,000 to a million. The amount depended on the location of the candidacy and was in proportion to the resources of the adversary.

The custom of selling the vote spread from the lowest social class to persons who qualified as "decent," and to such an extent that the case is told of villages where the rabble was incited to rise up and stone the houses of their best-known electoral agents because the parties there had made arrangements to avoid a contest and in consequence presenting only one list for their suffrages, leaving each free to vote without pay. The masses of people then became convinced that it was the "duty" of a candidate for deputy or senator to bribe his electors.

If there be added to this procedure the falsification of returns and records — a practice which was current, customary, and therefore unpunished — one will reach the conclusion that electoral liberty, for which so much blood had been shed was nothing, in practice, except liberty to indulge in fraud and bribery. The republic became a "free democracy" but a venal one which was weakening at its very source the most important law in its power.

This deplorable situation reacted harshly on civic spirit. There was a tendency to belittle the conception of "national solidarity,"  p369 which led one to intervene generously in affairs of common interest. Few, indeed, were those who really seemed to preserve true sentiments of patriotism. If activity and enthusiasm were shown in electioneering periods, it was because a small group succeeded with great effort in stirring up opinion and because the general mass saw in the distance the fee for its vote. But men of that same group promoted more than one campaign through the "morality of the suffrage," and, although they succeeded in obtaining but little result, their efforts were not less valuable on that account.

During the presidential elections of 1915 and 1920, which so greatly aroused the mass of the people, one could see some progress in civic customs. The two great political forces in which public opinion divided, the alliance and the coalition, fought on the basis of a definite program that accorded with public needs; and, although those programs did not in practice go beyond good intentions, because circumstances of various kinds did not offer a chance to realize them, it is certain that they reëchoed profoundly throughout the electorate of the country, helped to fix its ideas on some national problems, dissuaded a great number of citizens from bribery, and aroused new aspirations of social welfare.

The election of 1915 bore Juan Luis Sanfuentes to the presidency of the republic on the arms of the coalition, after a most stubborn struggle with the opposing combination; and that of 1920 bore to the same office Arturo Alessandri, the candidate of the liberal alliance, at the end of a no less violent struggle, in which the resulting "tie" could be decided only by a "tribunal of honor." In the election of Sanfuentes, the partisans of stability in the prevailing social and political order conquered. They were, for the most part, men of fortune who believed that any marked change in existing institutions constituted a menace to public peace, religious faith, and the free development of business. In the election of Alessandri, the victory went to the advocates of a profound social and political change, in the sense of a broader "democratization" of national institutions. People of all conditions, but especially of the educated middle class and the working masses, adhered to the program of the candidate who announced the advent of a "new system" for the republic.​6 The status attained by the proletariat in some European countries as a result of the great war (1914‑1918) was in keeping with the appearance and acceptance of those reforming tendencies whose efficacy in Chile was scarcely felt. At  p370 all events, it stimulated the civic spirit of the working element and strengthened its aspirations for greater political influence and a greater economic well-being, or, as they say, in their language, greater justice in the distribution of national wealth.

The Author's Notes:

1 For Concón and Placilla, see p347.

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2 For the autonomous commune established by this municipal law, see Ricardo Anguita, Recopilación de leyes por orden numérico (11 vols. Santiago, 1900‑1925), Ley No. 2960 in VIII, 111‑150. Irarrázaval was active in this movement.

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3 For the law of parliamentary incompatibilities, see ibid.,º Ley No. 2451, in VI, 129‑131.

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4 See article by Paul S. Reinsch, "Parliamentary Government in Chile," in American Political Science Review, III (November, 190), 507‑538.

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5 The standard work on political parties of Chile is Edwards' Bosquejo histórico de los partidos políticos chilenos. See especially pp102‑115. See also his La fronda aristocrática en Chile.

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6 For speeches of Alessandri, especially to working men, see El Presidente Alessandri y su gobierno (Santiago, 1926), passim.

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