One of the most important tasks of the Constitutional Convention is to define how political power will be distributed. Chilean presidentialism will once again be put in the dock and all the ills of Chilean society will be charged on it. However, this way of approaching the discussion seems to me to be unfair and unbalanced. Unfair, for not recognizing the political learning that our political regime has had; and, unbalanced, because it assumes other forms of government alien to our history without taking charge of the problems that drag other systems, such as the semi-presidential or parliamentary. For this reason, I suggest rather approaching this debate with an approach that focuses on the (dis)concentration of power.
Following Alexis de Tocqueville, in his classic text Democracy in America (1835), one of the main threats to democratic societies is the concentration of power. Their problem was not with presidentialism itself, since “legislative authority” can also be a threat, as they warn in “The Federalist,” suggesting a system of brakes and counterweights. The basic problem of democracies would be to build a single, central power that directs all citizens.
According to Tocqueville, in democratic societies there is a desire for equality, which would give rise to a natural rejection of all kinds of intermediate political organizations, which were typical of the Ancien Régime. Any interference between the citizen and the central power would therefore be viewed with suspicion, because it represents a sign of distinction. The risk would be that societies, in their yearning for equality, would not leave any intermediate power standing capable of opposing the central power, eventually being subject to its absolute discretion.
This important warning of the concentration of power must be updated and incorporated into the current debate in which we are obliged to rethink our constitutional order. According to Gerring et al. (2018), the concentration of power has its maximum pole when an individual or group is the decision makers, while dispersion is achieved when there is a greater number of actors with vetoes and limitations on the exercise of power. Thinking about the issue in this way requires us to see the problem in a horizontal dimension, which refers to dispersion and concentration at the same political level (e.g. Executive/Legislative); and another, vertical, which focuses on institutional designs associated with federalisms and the processes of political, fiscal and administrative decentralization.
Now, let’s start by examining, superficially, the horizontal dimension of the Chilean political system. In addition to the traditional division of powers, there have been others that counterbalance or restrict the powers of the President. Think of the Office of the Comptroller General of the Republic, the Central Bank (BC), the Constitutional Court (TC) and the Council for Transparency (CPLT) could be incorporated. Up to this level there is a good deconcentration, many actors with veto, far from the “deputy democracies” defined by O’Donnell (1994), in which horizontal accountability is almost non-existent or considered harmful by the leader of the day.
But institutions can be a simple shell or “insignificant” (Brink et al., 2019). Hence the importance of autonomy and the resources they have to exercise the role for which they were mandated. For example, the Comptroller’s Office since its foundation (1927) has enjoyed good institutional health, even acquiring constitutional status (1943), has a supervisory power and, as a mission, the protection of the principle of legality. I work very quietly, but fundamentally to control the threats of an overwhelming presidential power. The TC has had a very different history and perhaps its main question today is precisely the lack of autonomy in its formation, but its mission is key to avoid the concentration of power, since it resolves the possible conflicts between the most threatening powers of the political order: the Executive and Legislative. Faced with the threat of the centralisation of power, the Convention should consider how to strengthen this important institution.
The different trajectories of the Comptroller’s Office and the TC serve to think about the BC and CPLT in the constitutional order, organizations with another mission, but that deconcentrate or constrain power. The BC has proven to be an efficient institution, contributing to a stable economic policy. However, this was not always the case. On the contrary, since its foundation (1925), he constantly had to face the onssle of presidential power and Congress, through his intervention in the boards of directors or with legislation that constantly curtailed his powers or objectives (Carrasco, 2009). Consequently, the level of autonomy is key for them to be real veto actors and not insignificant institutions.
In the vertical dimension the scenario is completely different. The granting of political, administrative and fiscal powers to subnational governments has made progress, but they have been very timid at the municipal and regional government levels. Since the return to democracy, the mechanisms for electing our municipal authorities and regional governments (GORE) have been improved. Some administrative powers have been granted and some resources have been managed through the Municipal Common Fund or the National Regional Development Fund. The election of the “governor”, a regional authority approved with great difficulty and with limited powers, has only been held in the country. Egon Montecinos (2020) has shed light on the limitations and eventual problems of the new regional political landscape.
At the vertical level there is a pending task, which we must think very well, because we do not have much experience in this. It is not a question of falling into the goodness of thinking that all decentralization is good in itself, there are clearly threats because the concentration of power can also occur at the regional or local level, establishing logics of cooperation or conflict (Dosek and Varetto, 2020). At present, suggests Emilio Moya (2017), it is already possible to observe in areas of low statehood relations of a clientele nature and corruption at the level of local governments. Consequently, the absence of institutions of accountability, which deconcentrate or restrict power at the local level, must be visible when the issue of decentralization is considered.
In short, the (dis)concentration of power may be a more interesting approach to thinking about our new constitutional order, rather than exploring or vitrinearar other forms of political regimes (for example, semi-presidentialism or parliamentarianism). Changes in the political regime come at a high cost, discarding all accumulated historical experience, and without any guarantee of success.
However, it is better to examine the levels of (dis)concentration of power that exist today in our political regime and then just evaluate where to make the reforms. The slopes are clearly more at the vertical level than horizontal level.
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