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Local government in Chile
By Guy Burton

27 December 2008: Chile is a unitary and relatively centralised state consisting of 15 regions, 51 provinces and around 346 municipalities or communes in descending order of geographic scale. Chile’s current institutional structure was developed under the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. General Pinochet came to power in a coup in 1973, during which the elected President Salvadore Allende was killed. His regime governed until 1990.

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The regime is better known for the wave of repression, human rights abuses and the neo-liberal economic reforms undertaken during its time in office. Less appreciated were the changes directed at local government, most notably the military’s centralising tendencies that included the dismissal of elected mayors and commune councils. This was done as part of the regime’s de-politicisation process and ensured that communes’ relative autonomy – already limited prior to 1973 – was further circumscribed.

Despite the restrictions placed on local government, the regime was unable to administer most public services effectively from the centre. One year after the coup a new Sub-Secretariat for Regional and Administrative Development (SUBDERE) was established in the Ministry of the Interior alongside the new administrative regions that brought together groups of provinces. While the regions would manage central government priorities and funds from education to development, SUBDERE would provide oversight and scrutiny. Furthermore, in keeping with the regime’s determination to prevent alternative power centres the regional governors were appointed by the national government. In 2006 changes occurred to Chile’s regional system, with two new regions being created; these both came into being in October 2007.

In 1988 a referendum was held on Pinochet’s rule. The opposition, dominated by the Left and Centre through the two political parties of the Socialists and Christian Democrats, united together to form a broad coalition, the Concertación. This resulted in a defeat for Pinochet and a shaky and by no means certain transition towards democracy. General elections were held in 1989 and the Concertación held together, delivering victory for its presidential candidate, the Christian Democrat, Patricio Aylwin.

However, owing to the 1980 constitution and the electoral system, both the two main centre-right parties, the Independent Democratic Union (UDI) and National Renewal (RN) were ensured a predominant position in Congress, especially if they maintained an electoral pact. Furthermore, Pinochet himself ensured he would remain a presence in the post-transition political system, as commander of the armed forces (until 1997) and as senator-for-life.

This situation presented a challenge to the new Concertación government, both through the electoral Right’s ability to block legislation and the extent of its commitment to democratic norms, especially during the early 1990s. While the government pursued a cautious line with regard to the economy and human rights abuses, in the local government arena Aylwin’s attempt to bring back direct elections for mayors fell at the legislative hurdle.

With deadlock between the Concertación and the Right over local government reforms negotiations began between the two sides, resulting in an agreement in 1991. In effect the prevailing system as set up under the military regime was maintained, with a few alterations, minus the possibility of direct elections for mayor.  The result was that during the 1990s a commune’s mayor was chosen from among his or her peers following local elections.  This method remained in place during the 1990s.  Since 2004 though, mayors are now subject to direct election.

Local government maintained its weak position and low level of policy-making autonomy vis-à-vis the centre, being forbidden to borrow, control tax revenues and remaining dependent on government transfers. This includes the capital city, Santiago, which is made up of over 30 communes and although accounts for nearly half of the Chile’s GDP and is home to a third of the country’s population, remains without any metropolitan authority or structure. This has resulted in variable degrees of quality between the commune’s provisions of basic services.

If the situation at the local level was left largely unchanged, at the regional level the president continued to have the power to appoint governors to the regions. But the structure was also subjected to a partial democratisation: regional councillors draw their legitimacy through their election by municipal councillors.

Notwithstanding the reaffirmation to centralisation in the 1991 agreement, political and administrative experience in Chile's local government has been subject to decentralising pressures since the 1990s. Although the communes remain institutionally weak, their political role has grown through the rising salience of mayors. Local government offers an alternative to national political institutions as a way of building a reputation and developing an electoral base, with mayors in the larger communes using the system as a stepping stone to national office.

Ironically, the Concertación has not benefited from the changes in local government. Initially it favoured the opening up of the political system, including holding direct elections for mayor as a means of gaining further electoral advantage over the Right. However, the experience since the 1990s suggests that it has been the UDI and RN candidates that have benefited the most. While the Concertación remains dominant at the national level where policy-making and fiscal powers reside, local government has served as a voice of protest against the centre. This has been exacerbated by the presence of national-level electoral pacts and electoral system being reconstituted at the local level, resulting in a growth in electoral strength by the Right at the local elections since 1992. Meanwhile the Concertación has seen its share of councillors fall in local elections owing to its inability to mobilise society effectively at this level.

The rise of the Right has had consequences for the composition and administration of regional governance. With a greater numbers of councillors affiliated to the UDI and RN, the Right has benefited from the partial democratisation at this level, owing to a larger pool from which the regional councillors are drawn. Consequently the Concertación has depended on its appointment of regional governors to counter the weight of the Right in regional councils. This has become more important with the rise of government transfers during this period, from 21 per cent of such funds in 1994 to 43 per cent by 2000. This process has also put pressure on the selection of regional councillors, in particular encouraging them to become more professional.

The most recent elections for Chile's communes were held in November 2008, with a significant tally for the Right against the governing Concertación.  This was followed by indirect elections for regional councillors.  Consequently, no substantial changes to the structure of Chilean regional, provincial or local government is anticipated until after 2009.

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World Mayor 2023

largest cities

Rank City Population
1 Santiago 5,035,000
2 Puente Alto 464,000
3 Concepcion 405,000
4 Vina del Mar 360,000
5 Temuco 325,000
6 Valparaiso 303,000
7 Talcahuano 300,000
8 Antofagasta 278,000
9 San Bernardo 271,000
10 Rancagua 237,000
11 Arica 208,000
12 Chillan 205,000
13 Talca 203,000
14 Iquique 200,000
15 Los Angeles 179,000
16 Puerto Mont 171,000
17 Osorno 164,000
18 Coquimbo 161,000
19 Calama 155,000
20 La Serena 152,000
Source: The population figures are based on 2002 statistics and were adjusted in 2006 to reflect population trends