The remarks excerpted below were presented on May 14 by newly elected Chilean president Sebastián Piñera upon signing a set of proposed laws for the strengthening of democracy to be submitted to the Congress. For more on the Chilean elections, please see the article by Juan Pablo Luna and Rodrigo Mardones on pp. 107–21 above.
Democracies are like people: We have to take care of them, love them, feed them, and develop them. Because, otherwise, they lose strength, they lose vigor, and they start to age. And in Chile, we have a paradox: There is so much appreciation for democracy and, at the same time, often just as much depreciation of politics. I want to say that there is no healthy democracy with a sick political system. As a consequence, we, as a society and a country, have to make an effort to stop this process of losing strength, vitality, connection, youth, and legitimacy that our democracy has experienced recently. We want, precisely, to make a great effort, and it is a commitment of our government to perfect, fortify, revitalize, and rejuvenate our democracy. The diagnosis is clear. Our democracy is losing strength; that is a reality. Our democracy is growing old; that is a reality. And our democracy is growing further away from the citizenry; that also, unfortunately, is a reality.
Today we have 11.5 million Chilean men and women older than the age of 18; however, only 8 million of them are registered to vote. There are 3.5 million Chilean citizens who do not even care to register to vote and who do not participate. And if we add to this number those who abstain and those who cast null or blank ballots, we arrive at the conclusion that almost half of all Chileans—more than 5 million people—do not participate in our democracy. That is a warning signal to which we cannot remain indifferent. Additionally, our democracy is growing old. In the plebiscite in 1988, 36 percent of the voters were younger than 29. In the last election, this number had fallen to less than 9 percent. This signifies [End Page 184] that our youth is withdrawing from our democracy. Moreover, of the 3 million young Chileans, only 700,000 are registered to vote. And many of those who are registered do not vote. After the year 1995 —15 years ago—our electoral roll stopped growing. . . .
I would like to add a third element. The first was low participation, the second was aging, and the third is the legitimacy of our democracy. We are concerned to see how the principal institutions of our democracy—the Congress, the municipalities, the political parties, the deputies, the senators, the governors—have systematically lost the backing and respect of the citizenry, as is reflected in public-opinion polls.
Confronted by this triple problem of low participation, aging, and loss of legitimacy of our democracy, our government wants to take the bull by the horns and make an enormous effort to give our democracy force, vitality, youthfulness, and the energy that it needs. . . .
In the first place, as a government, we are going to give all our support to passing a bill that establishes automatic registration and voluntary voting. Automatic registration is going to mean that four million more Chileans will be incorporated into the electoral rolls. . . . I want to note that on the matter of voting there are two main theories: One holds that voting is an obligation and should be obligatory; the other holds that voting is a right and should be voluntary. Both have good reasons and arguments to support them, but one must choose, and we have chosen to establish automatic registration and voluntary voting. That also is the preference of an immense majority of Chilean citizens, and they have expressed it time and again in public-opinion polls. In the second place, we are going to get rid of this absurd separation of voting places for men and women. . . .
Additionally, we are going to propose a system of voluntary primaries, simultaneous and binding, for the election of candidates, especially candidates for the presidency of the republic, senators, deputies, mayors, and eventually councilors . . .
Ninth, we are going to immensely simplify communal plebiscites in order to facilitate the direct participation of the citizenry in dealing with problems, programs, or options at the level of each community . . .
I want, one more time, to express my thanks, because we have drawn upon many initiatives presented by deputies and senators during the past 20 years. We have drawn upon many of these initiatives, and we will add our sponsorship to existing projects and combine initiatives in order to create a global and integrated initiative to help our democracy to recuperate its strength, its youthfulness, and the vitality that is necessary for it to be able to be the vertebrae of the system of participation and decision making in our republic. Remembering the saying “a healthy mind in a healthy body,” I want to remind all of my compatriots that in order to have a healthy democracy, we also need to have a healthy political body. That is a challenge for us all. [End Page 185]