Chilean politics have been characterized by presidential systems since the 20th century. Governments with different tendencies were elected in democratic elections and difficulties and crises were not absent from the young republic, reaching their most conflictive point with the institutional breakdown in 1973.
After the civil war the government was controlled by an oligarchy that defended the parliamentary system with a minimal presidential influence. The saltpeter riches and the economic growth created significant differences between the emerging working class and the owners of companies.
The most dramatic of moment in these differences came in 1907, after thousands of saltpeter workers marched toward the city of Iquique. Gathered in the Santa Maria school, they were brutally repressed by the military and hundreds were killed.
The middle classes arrived on the political scene in the second decade of the 20th century. Arturo Alessandri was elected president in 1920 and implemented a series of labor reforms despite the fact that he had to deal with the declining price of saltpeter, the country’s main export. The presidential system that has prevailed through today was reestablished with a new Political Constitution in 1925.
The radical governments
The government was in the hands of the Radical Party, a social democratic and secular party, between 1938 and 1952. During these 14 years they emphasized education and the country’s industrialization. Women were definitively incorporated into political life with the right to vote, which had only existed for women with age restrictions since 1931. Pedro Aguirre Cerda, Juan Antonio Rios, and Gabriel Gonzalez Videla were the three radical presidents who governed Chile during this period.
The three thirds society
Jorge Alessandri, son of former president Arturo Alessandri, won the 1958 presidential elections. He received 31% of the vote, surpassing socialist Salvador Allende with 28% of the vote and the Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei with 20.5%. From that moment on, the three thirds of Chilean politics were installed, representing three different and at the same time exclusive projects. One third was comprised of the conservative economic liberal right wing, the other third was the Christian Democracy, a centrist party that sought reforms through the church’s social doctrine, and the final third was comprised of the left, inspired in a Marxist project for profound social changes. None of these sectors had absolute majorities but the three were to reach the government.
The Jorge Alessandri administration showed economic progress in its early years, but then had to deal with emergencies from natural catastrophes and the 1960 earthquake that devastated the central and southern part of the country. The city of Valdivia was practically destroyed in the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that flooded its riverside sector. Alessandri was politically isolated by the end of his government and Eduardo Frei Montalva was elected the new president in 1964.
The fundamental works of the Christian Democracy’s term were the agrarian reform and the Chilenization of copper, which was followed with particular interest from all over the world as a third way that was far different from the capitalist and socialist models. As in Europe and the United States, the ‘60s in Chile were marked by youths demanding educational and social reform.
Cultural expression attained great vigor and the names of Violeta Parra and Victor Jara are some of the symbols of the period. The reforms of the Frei Montalva administration prompted the rejection of right-wing sectors and social polarization, and some sectors of the Army tried to rebel against the government. And that was the context when the the 1970 presidential elections were held.
The Popular Unity coalition (Unidad Popular) comprised of the Communist, Socialist, and Radical Parties, among other leftist forces, elected Salvador Allende with 36% of the vote, the first relative majority, and the National Congress ratified him as the new president and the first democratically elected Marxist president in the world.
The Salvador Allende government nationalized the mining sector and the country’s major companies, expanded the agrarian reform, and increased workers’ salaries. The economy grew 8% in the first year of his government, but shortly thereafter the opposition of sectors that rejected the socialist project emerged. In the international context of the Cold War, the project motivated expressions of discontent among conservatives, the opposition and intervention of the U.S. and a generalized political confrontation that led to the economy spinning out of control and shortages of basic products.
On 11 September 1973 the Armed Forces, led by General Augusto Pinochet, overthrew the constitutional government of the Popular Unity. In an act of historical resonance, President Salvador Allende refused to surrender to the rebellious military and took his own life in La Moneda, the seat of the Chilean Government, while the palace was bombed by the Air Force.