Few Chileans have a voice in government. That’s why so many are in the streets.

This post was originally published in the Washington Post

Since Oct. 8, Chileans have been protesting in the streets — sometimes peacefully, sometimes furiously. The government responded with curfews and military force; at least 20 people are dead, hundreds injured and more than 4,000 detained. Set off in Santiago by a transit fare increase, the demonstrations have quickly expanded to six cities, protesting the cost of living and extreme inequality more broadly.

The protests’ violence and rapid spread have surprised most observers, as has the fact that they didn’t abate when President Sebastián Piñera canceled the fare hike, raised both the minimum wage and taxes on the wealthy, and replaced his cabinet. Now protests are not only directed at government but also at the political elite. Scholars and journalists have primarily pointed to Chile’s income inequality, which ranks among the highest in the 34-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

But that explanation ignores Chile’s other structural inequalities.

Chile’s main political parties are dominated by the top socioeconomic strata

My research shows that inequalities in Chile go beyond income and include access to political power and public office. Most elected representatives come from a closed and small elite who are living in a far more privileged reality than the rest of the country. This gap is well documented. A U.N. Development Program report in 2017 showed inequalities in almost every aspect of public life, including access to health care and such services as pharmacies, police provisions and public transportation. Moreover, a recent study showed that studying in select Chilean private schools and being male are the strongest predictors of reaching top executive jobs in the country.

Here’s how I did the research

Stephanie Alenda, the nonpartisan consulting firm Azerta and I conducted a study of Chile’s congressional candidates. We looked for information about candidates’ backgrounds and collected data using open sources, such as Chile’s Electoral Service, a government office that organizes elections nationally. Our study included candidates for Congress, including those elected, since 1990. We also fielded an online survey of all the candidates running for Congress in 2017, to which 25 percent responded. The survey was part of the Comparative Candidates Survey, a research project collecting data in 35 countries, and asked candidates about their political careers, attitudes, campaign strategies, harassment and more.

Private schools shape Chile’s elite

The data reveal that certain private schools are particularly successful in educating people who become members of Chile’s Congress. For example, graduates from the San Ignacio private schools, a group of Catholic schools with highly selective admissions, have been elected to Congress 43 times in the last four sessions, out of 299 people elected to Chile’s lower house of Congress. Most of these elite selective schools are Catholic — predominantly run by either the ultraconservative Opus Dei or the more liberal Jesuits — and almost all are based in Santiago.

This trend continues through the university level, as most public officials have studied for the same three degrees — law, medicine and engineering — in the same two top universities, the Pontifical Catholic University of Chileand the University of Chile. That’s true across the political spectrum for people representing both left and right.

Do all Chilean parties come entirely from the top socioeconomic strata?

As political scientists Juan Pablo Luna and David Altman’s researchshowed, Chilean political parties are highly institutionalized: They’re widely considered legitimate, and members compete internally for positions. But they’re not rooted in social movements, civic organizations or other aspects of most citizens’ ordinary lives. Most voters have historically refused to identify as party supporters.

Our survey shows that a very small proportion of mainstream parties’ candidates have been involved in grass-roots organizations. Political scientist Alenda’s research on mainstream-right political parties similarly finds that mainstream-right parties recruit internal party leaders — such as municipal party chairs — from local groups but rarely run them for Congress.

A new left-wing coalition, the Frente Amplio, founded in 2017, is an outlierOur data find that up to a third of Frente Amplio candidates say they’ve been leaders in social movements; a quarter say they belong to trade unions, slightly more than the 20 percent of all Chileans. Frente Amplio candidates are also significantly younger than other parties’ candidates, and some have emerged from student unions. However, in the 2017 elections the party won 20 out of 155 seats in the lower chamber, and one in the senate.

Why the sharp division between ordinary people and politicians?

One explanation for elite politics lies in the constitution drafted by Chile’s former right-wing dictatorship, run by Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990). The dictatorship worried that trade unions and local groups leaned to the left, and so the Constitution includes an explicit ban on allowing trade unionists or local neighborhood association leaders from running for elected office — and hasn’t been repealed. Political parties stopped looking at these groups when selecting their candidates, effectively separating civil society from political elites.

Chilean politicians have tried power-sharing initiatives, intending to get a broader array of citizens involved. Former president Michelle Bachelet held constitutional assemblies that engaged more than 200,000 people, asking for ideas for a new constitution. But the initiative stalled; her government drafted and proposed a new constitution only days before she left office. Bachelet also launched an ambitious urban initiative that got civic groups involved in redesigning Santiago’s main roads, called the Nueva Alameda-Providencia project. But Piñera axed this, citing budgetary constraints.

Recently, Piñera has responded to protesters’ demands. But even though he has replaced key cabinet members with some considered more centrist, he’s still relying on members of Congress from the same elite class.

Chilean political elites are fundamentally split from the rest of the society. They do not come from the same schools, or even the same school systems. They live in more expensive neighborhoods with better public services. They go to more elite universities and turn to a different health-care system. Chile is a classic example of the tale of two cities, with one ruling over the other.

Chile just went to the polls — and transformed its legislature

This article was originally published in The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage Blog

On Sunday, for the seventh time since Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship ended, Chileans went to the polls to elect a president and National Congress. Only 46 percent of those eligible to vote actually did so, one of the lowest turnouts in the country’s history.

In the presidential race, no candidate won a full majority, which means there will be a runoff, scheduled for Dec. 17. Although most opinion polls had shown right-wing billionaire and former president Sebastián Piñera with a clear lead of between 42 and 47 percent, the latest results show he received only 36.6 percent of the ballots. The next-place candidate, Sen. Alejandro Guillier, the center-left candidate, received just under 23 percent.

Perhaps more significant than the presidential first round was the transformation of Congress. This was the first time Chile has gone to the polls since major electoral reforms. Voters weighed in on all the members of the legislature’s lower house, and almost half the Senate. What were the results?

Chile transformed its electoral system since the last election

For 28 years, a tailor-made electoral system allowed the two larger coalitions — one on the center right that still hosts some of Pinochet’s old allies, and another on the center left — to rule Congress without admitting smaller parties.

But over the past eight years, Chile has seen significant social and political transformations. In 2011, during Piñera’s government, students protested en masse over the decreasing role of the country in secondary education, and for the introduction of free higher education. More recently, lawmakers on both right and left — including family members of President Michelle Bachelet — were implicated in high-profile corruption cases.

Bachelet reacted by commissioning a report on potential changes to the political system and campaign finance. The Engel report (named after the commission’s chair, former Yale professor Eduardo Engel) suggested a number of changes — many of which Bachelet championed, and which Congress put into law under the pressure of public opinion.

As a result, Bachelet oversaw major electoral reforms, including gender quotas for Congress, an electoral system that aims to translate the political parties’ vote shares into the percentage of seats in Congress, and limits on political donations and campaign spending. The gender quotas legislation requires every party’s candidate list to include at least 40 percent women, a move that was encouraged by international organizations like the U.N. Development Programme.

Did this new electoral system lead to different results?

The new electoral system wouldn’t have affected the presidential election, which is one person, one vote. Piñera won almost 10 points below what the polls predicted. Guillier also won less than predicted, as the center left votes went to two different candidates. As a result, journalist Beatriz Sánchez from the left-wing coalition Frente Amplio got 20.3 percent of the vote — the most garnered by a left-only coalition since Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular in 1970.

But because of the reforms, Congress will look quite different. My research project, Candidaturas Chile — which is an international consortium among Queen Mary, University of London, Universidad Andrés Bello, and Azerta — has collected data on all candidates who ran for Congress this year and in all elections since 1989, including demographic information and political or professional background. This allows us to compare the results of this election with those from previous elections.

Most notable are the changes in Congress’s gender composition. Chile was at the bottom of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries in gender balance, with women making up 16 percent of all representatives — only 15 percent in the Senate, and 16.4 percent in the lower house. However, after the new elections under the legal gender quotes, women make up 26 percent of the Senate and 23 percent of the lower house.

Further, the new and more proportional districts have changed the party composition of the Congress. The proportion of MPs that do not belong to the traditional parties jumped from 3 percent to 17 percent. And Frente Amplio, the insurgent left coalition that wasn’t founded until January this year, managed to elect a senator for the first time.

Further, the new Congress will seat a significant number of new faces. Only 55 percent of Senate incumbents running for reelection kept their seats — while in the lower house, only 40.6 percent of incumbents did. The new Congress is also younger. Senators’ average ages decreased from 59 to 56; lower house members’ average ages dropped from 50 to 45. Chileans also elected a senator and a lower house member from the indigenous Mapuche ethnic group, which has not happened since the 1970s.

Politically, the balance of power among political parties changed significantly. The ruling coalition Nueva Mayoría obtained only 56 of the lower house’s 155 seats, while Piñera’s coalition, Chile Vamos, won 73. Neither reached a majority. Frente Amplio, on the other hand, increased its presence from three to 20 lower house members, becoming the pivotal group for the next four years.

What will this election mean for Chile’s political direction?

Bachelet oversaw the passage of a progressive agenda that, among other legislation, put into place free higher education, established same-sex civil unions, and implemented abortion rights. If Piñera wins, he will have a difficult time rolling these back, since his legislative coalition does not have a majority. If Guillier wins, any attempt to push Bachelet’s reforms even further will be resisted by the center-right coalition Chile Vamos, but should be supported by Frente Amplio legislators.

Whoever gets elected president in December, the challenge will be to operate in a Congress that is less experienced, more socially diverse, and much more complex in political terms than previously. Chile will prove a significant test case for proponents of deep electoral reform around the world.