The President of the Republic is both chief of state and head of government, and is elected every four years by popular vote. The current President, Sebastián Piñera Echenique, was elected in 2010. Under current Chilean law, the President may only hold office for a single four-year period, without the possibility of immediate re-election.
The President is in charge of the general administration of the government, as well as drafting, endorsing, and promulgating laws. He or she is also empowered to appoint the maximum regional authorities in the country – the Intendants of the 15 regions and the Governors of the 53 provinces. The President may also appoint and remove ministers from the cabinet, as well as their closest collaborators.
The country’s citizens elect deputies every four years and senators every eight using a unique binomial system that is designed to promote bipartisanship. Under the system, each coalition can present two candidates for the two Senate and two lower-chamber seats apportioned to each chamber’s electoral districts. Only if the leading coalition ticket outpolls the second-place coalition by a margin of more than 2-to-1 does the winning coalition gain both seats.
The Chamber of Deputies is comprised of 120 representatives. Each one of the districts represented by the Deputies has at least one “comuna”, or municipality, the smallest of the country’s political-administrative units.
In addition to drafting and amending laws, deputies engage in oversight of government activities in accordance with the powers that the Constitution bestows upon them.
The Senate is comprised of 38 representatives. Each of its constituencies is a single region which elects two senators. Its principal responsibility is to work toward the formation of laws, together with the Chamber of Deputies. Its exclusive powers include hearing the accusations the Chamber of Deputies present against certain authorities, to give or deny its consent to presidential actions in those cases required by the Constitution or the law, and to decide on the impeachment of a government authority, though only in very exceptional cases.
The Chilean Judicial Branch is empowered to hear civil and criminal cases, resolve them, and execute their rulings. The highest court is the Supreme Court, which has 21 judges appointed by the President of the Republic subject to prior Senate approval.
Along with the Supreme Court, the judicial branch is comprised principally of permanent courts including the Appeals Courts, the Court Presidents and Judges, Trial Courts, Guarantee Courts, and Criminal Oral Trial Courts.
In addition there exist special tribunals, such as the Family Courts, the Labor Trial Courts, the Labor and Pension Collection Courts and Military Tribunals in times of peace.
Over the last decade Chile underwent a profound judicial reform that has transformed the criminal procedures system from one based on an inquisitive procedure that had been in effect since the early 19th century to a modernized accusatory model with oral trials.
The new Criminal Procedures Code establishes that investigations and accusations in criminal cases be placed in the hands of the recently created Public Prosecutor’s Office, an autonomous institution for the administration of justice.
The same reform created the Public Defender’s Office for criminal cases, an institution under the supervision of the President of the Republic through the Justice Ministry that is in charge of representing those accused of a crime who do not have an attorney.
The transformation of the criminal procedures system also created the Guarantee Courts to protect the rights of victims, witnesses, and the accused during proceedings, along with the Criminal Oral Trial Courts. The latter are presided over by a bench of judges charged with hearing and guiding the debate during oral trials. They subsequently determine the guilt or innocence of the accused.
This post is also available in Spanish