Voting For Nobody in Chile's New Democracy

September 25, 2007

In December 1997, parliamentary elections were held in Chile to renew the entire Chamber of Deputies and half the elected seats in the Senate. These elections brought to light a disquieting trend: A growing number of citizens were opting not to exercise their right to vote. Of a potential electorate of over 9.5 million people, about 1.5 million did not register, another million registered but failed to vote, and about 1.25 million went to the polls but either spoiled their ballots or left them blank.[1] The sum of nonregistered voters, abstainers and "voters for nobody" came to about 40% of those eligible to vote.

The country's democratic transition was initiated with the record-breaking participation in the October 5, 1988 plebiscite on presidential succession, in which Chileans could vote for or against the continuation in power of General Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet was resoundingly defeated in the plebiscite, in which some 92.2% of the adult population registered to vote. Among registered voters, the abstention rate was only 2.3%. In all, 87.9% of the citizenry opted to participate in the plebiscite.[2] Since then, however, fewer citizens have opted to register to vote, and there has been a dramatic increase in abstentionism and in the number of deliberately spoiled and blank ballots.

While the population over the age of 18 has grown from just over eight million in 1988 to more than 9.6 million in 1997, the number of registered voters has only increased from 7.4 million in 1988 to just under eight million in 1997. This represents a drop in the percentage of citizens who are registered to vote from 92.2% to 83.8%. And in every type of election, fewer people are turning out to vote. From a 2.3% abstention rate in the 1988 plebiscite, for example, the abstention rate rose to 6.3% in the 1989 plebiscite to ratify reforms to the dictatorship's 1980 Constitution. Since then, abstentionism has increased steadily. While the abstention rate in the 1989 elections—in which Concertación candidate Patricio Aylwin was elected—was only 5.3%, it grew to 8.7% in the 1993 elections, in which Eduardo Frei, Jr. was elected. The same trend is evident in municipal and parliamentary elections. In nation-wide municipal elections, abstentionism grew from 10.2% in 1992 to 12.2% in 1996; while in parliamentary elections, it grew from 5.3% in 1989 to 8.7% in 1993 and 12.7% in 1997.[3]

The number of voters who indicate "no preference" or who nullify their vote has also continued to increase, surpassing all historical precedents and climbing well beyond the average for Western democracies. In the plebiscites, the 2.3% who did not indicate a preference for the yes or the no vote on Pinochet in 1988 grew to 6.1% for the vote on Constitutional reforms in 1989. In the presidential elections, the percentage of spoiled and blank ballots increased from 2.5% in 1989 to 5.5% in 1993. In the case of the municipal elections, it grew from 9.0% in 1992 to 11.0% in 1996. The number of voters who invalidated their ballots in parliamentary elections grew from 5.0% in 1989 to 8.8% in 1993, and then to an incredible 17.8% in 1997.[4]

These percentages are all the more telling when compared to voting behavior in Chile between 1949 and 1973. In this period, the percentage of spoiled and blank ballots oscillated between a mere 0.2% and 1.2% in the presidential elections, 1.0% and 4.0% in the parliamentary elections, and 1.0% and 4.4% in municipal voting.[5] In Western European parliamentary elections, the average percentage of null and blank votes between 1977 and 1990 held steady at about 1.0%.[6]

The foundation of contemporary democracies is the idea of citizenship, the recognition that the individuals who form part of a politically organized society have certain well-defined rights and obligations. Arising with the liberal revolutions, the concept and practice of modern citizenship has only gradually spread beyond a small subset of the population, as a prolonged struggle for universal citizenship has diminished class, gender, ethnic and corporatist privileges. Universal suffrage has always been one of the principal components of this struggle, and once achieved, it has helped make the distinction between active citizens—those who vote—and passive citizens—those who do not—virtually obsolete.[7]

In recent decades, however, the global expansion of the rights of citizenship has been accompanied by an increase in the number of citizens who, in a variety of settings, have given up their right to participate in electoral processes. In these cases, we can once again distinguish between "active" and "passive" citizens, though with a new distinction between those who effectively exercise their rights of citizenship and those who have voluntarily renounced the most important of those rights—the right to vote. This distinction has paradoxically been growing within the current Chilean transition to democracy.

The predominant interpretation among political analysts and the establishment has been to negate or minimize the relevance of this phenomenon. Carla Lehmann of the Center for Public Studies (CEP), for example, situates the phenomenon within a global context, arguing that it is a natural occurrence for a nearly developed country which enjoys a stable democracy.[8] "The growing phenomenon of abstention," she writes, "is a process which most of the developed countries have experienced. To the extent that countries continue generating stable democracies and sustained economic growth, it is logical to think that people will vote less because there are fewer important things at stake. Politics, that is, within the context of the population's priorities, loses relevance."[9]

According to Lehmann, CEP's study of the characteristics of those who did not vote in the 1997 parliamentary elections demonstrates that "this group of self-marginalized voters is not a 'distinct' group in terms of its opinions, perceptions and preferences in relation to the problems of the country, the economic situation and party politics. In general, the only thing that differentiates them from those who did vote is that they are essentially women and young men."[10]

Lehmann assigns a certain responsibility to the political class for the decline in voting, arguing that it is out of touch with people's concerns. The explanation for the significant growth of the nonvoting population, she says, "can be found in the fact that current politics does not interest them and in the low capacity of politicians to respond to people's problems. The political marginalization of this group can be explained by its minimal commitment to politics and the limited appeal of the proposals put forth by the politicians. There is a perception that what is at stake is little or nothing, except the struggle for power."[11]

Lamentably, the CEP study says nothing about the characteristics of the most enigmatic group, the large and growing segment of the population that shows up to vote, but then spoils their ballots or leaves them blank. Therefore we do not know if the study's conclusions about unregistered voters and those who abstain from voting also applies to the large numbers who chose to vote for none of the options offered in the elections of deputies in 1997.[12] In any case, more convincing explanations to these growing phenomena may be found by examining the connection between changing political behavior—the growing withdrawal from the right to vote—and the political characteristics of Chile's redemocratization process. This means inquiring about those experiences which have affected people during the transition, and how this has led to changes in their electoral behavior.

The peculiarity of Chile's redemocratization lies in the consolidation of a mix of democratic and authoritarian institutions, the product of the 54 reforms to the dictatorship's 1980 Constitution approved by the 1989 plebiscite. This constitutional hybrid was originally conceived as a transitory set of institutions, but it has become extremely difficult to transform. The continuity of the democratizing process has, in fact, been blocked by a complex and effective network of institutionalized powers which are referred to as "authoritarian enclaves." These enclaves act as legal—if not legitimate—counterweights to democratic institutions, agents and processes.

The network of authoritarian enclaves includes a nonelected set of institutional or designated senators; a binomial-majority electoral system which guarantees the overrepresentation of the largest minority—the right—and the underrepresentation of the second-largest minority, the non-Concertación, i.e. Communist, left; the arbitrary structure of electoral districts; and the need to find overwhelming majorities for constitutional reforms. The liberal principle of checks and balances has been distorted in Chile, establishing in practice a form of differentiated citizenship, with special rights of representation for the social and political sectors which monopolized power during the military regime. This reality makes it impossible to think of the narrowing of active citizenship as simply the national expression of a global phenomenon that is inherent in stable representative democracies.[13] On the contrary, it is the stability of an insufficiently representative political system—Chile's transitional democracy—which helps explain declining levels of political participation.

Chile, like other countries in similar circumstances, began its transition to democracy holding human rights to be the fundamental and final ethic of political action. Nevertheless, after ten years of transition, the consensus on human rights—especially concerning the necessity of bringing to justice those responsible for human rights violations of the dictatorship—has given way to a relativity concerning the realities of power, the so-called "reasons of state." This modus vivendi constitutes another powerful reason for the disenchantment with political actors and institutions and the decline in political participation. The political atmosphere generated by the arrest of General Pinochet last October has only sharpened the "realistic" attitudes and choices of the political establishment, which may have the effect of increasing the self-marginalization of the citizenry from the electoral process.

The progressive widening of active citizenship, a century-old trend that reached its highest point with the reopening of the electoral rolls and the plebiscite of 1988, has been supplanted by a narrowing of active citizenship and the corresponding growth of a large segment of passive citizens concentrated mainly among youth. It is not that the young are apathetic cynics who cannot be mobilized. They participate in large numbers in organizations devoted to sports, neighborhood activities, education and religion.[14] But their participation in electoral politics is sharply diminishing.

It may be that the discontent and disenchantment expressed in the various ways of not voting can be transformed with the active backing of the more radical left. A campaign to mobilize youth might even overcome the ideological and programmatic anachronism from which Communism now suffers. Alternatively, the Concertación itself might be able to recapture the self-marginalized by recovering the will—and developing an effective strategy—to unblock the transition process. If neither one of these things take place, however, the most probable outcome is that the numbers of "voters for nobody" will increase. This would constitute a serious stumbling block for Chilean democracy, since it means that segments of the citizenry who are potential agents of transformation will remain marginalized from effective political action.

Whether the Pinochet case is resolved in favor of justice or the "reasons of state" and how the presidential candidates link the issues of human rights and democratization to their broader platforms will determine whether Chile continues on the path of declining citizenship, or whether it can broaden the active participation of its citizens.

Alfredo Riquelme teaches history at Chile's Catholic University. This article is based on a longer paper presented at the conference, Chile: Model Country for Democracy and Development?, held at the University of California at San Diego in December 1998, and will be published in a forthcoming volume edited by Paul Drake and Iván Jaksic. Translated from the Spanish by NACLA.

1. Reports of the National Statistics Institute (INE) and the Electoral Service of the Republic of Chile, both 1998.
2. Reports of the INE and the Electoral Service of the Republic of Chile, various years.
3. Reports of the INE and the Electoral Service of the Republic of Chile, various years.
4. Reports of the INE and the Electoral Service of the Republic of Chile, various years.
5. Javier Martínez and Lilian Mires, "Elecciones: la política en cifras," Proposiciones, No. 16 (1988), pp. 95-116.
6. María Luz Morán, "¿Y si no voto, qué? La participación política en los años ochenta," in Rafael Cruz and Manuel Pérez Ledesma, Cultura y movilización en la España contemporánea (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1997), pp. 359-386.
7. The broadening of the notion of citizenship in the twentieth century has, of course, involved more than voting. Citizenship now implies civil and political rights, economic and social rights as well as cultural and environmental rights.
8. Carla Lehmann, "La voz de los que no votaron," Puntos de Referencia, No. 197 (April 1998).
9. Carla Lehmann, "La voz de los que no votaron," pp. 1, 2.
10. Carla Lehmann, "La voz de los que no votaron," pp. 1, 5.
11. Carla Lehmann, "La voz de los que no votaron," pp. 1, 7.
12. In the legislative elections of 1997, there were 1,250,578 citizens who voted null or blank—32.6% of all those who did not vote.
13. Carla Lehmann, "La voz de los que no votaron."
14. INJUV, "Análisis y difusión de la segunda encuesta nacional de juventud: La participicación de los jovenes," Executive Summary, 1998."

Tags: Chile, Augusto Pinochet, justice, democratic transition, authoritarian, elections

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