Former Chilean president Patricio Aylwin died April 19 at the age of 97. Aylwin, a Christian Democrat who took office in 1990, was the first democratically elected president to follow Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s oppressive military dictatorship.

Aylwin also was a key player in Chile’s democratic transition and one of the founders of the country’s center-left coalition, the Concertación. What is his legacy, more than a quarter-century later? And how did this transition shape the stability and quality of Chile’s democracy today?

Chile’s return to democracy was “pacted” — Pinochet and the opposition elite negotiated the terms of the transition, with Pinochet wielding immense power. Studies stress that these transitions are highly unpredictable. Compromises negotiated with outgoing autocratic regimes may limit the ability of new democracies to produce social and economic gains.

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Terry Karl at Stanford University argues that transitions built on pacts protect the interests of the outgoing regimes because the authoritarian elite decide the terms for relinquishing power. According to Karl, these transitions may work in the short term but then come under fire when citizens grow increasingly discontented with the conservative nature of such democracies.

The long arm of Pinochet

In Chile, Pinochet and his allies wrote their prerogatives into the 1980 constitution. The document limited the power of elected officials to intervene in military affairs and pursue justice for human rights abuses. The creation of designated senators also hindered political representation.

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Manuel Garretón, a sociologist at the University of Chile, argues that these limitations, or “authoritarian enclaves,” left civilian authorities unable to alter key aspects of Pinochet’s political and economic model. The presence of designated senators and the rules of the binomial electoral system — which incentivized pre-electoral coalitions and virtually ensured a divided Congress — did not advance democracy in Chile. Instead, the constitution skewed political representation in favor of the right, effectively tying the hands of politicians looking to reform Pinochet’s political and economic systems.

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Chile’s first four Concertación administrations (1990-2010) emphasized negotiation and consensus building — and achieved only piecemeal policy reforms. Several studies underscore the failure of these governments to adequately address citizen demands, particularly in the areas of social policy, labor market regulations, human rights abuses, women’s rights, indigenous rights and constitutional design.

So how a country transitions to democracy does matter, as Karl would argue. How Chile transitioned shaped the stability and quality of its new democracy, but other scholars point to additional factors that might also play a role.

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Caution on the left, as well as on the right

In my book, I find that the cautious politics of President Aylwin and other Concertación administrations also reflect constraints put in place by the center-left parties, which were wary of building close ties with their voting base. The elite on the left worried that mobilizing their voters could prove destabilizing.

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During Pinochet’s 17-year military dictatorship, many in the center-left political elite underwent a process of ideological renovation. Leaders from the Christian Democratic and Socialist parties shifted their attitude about markets, the role of private-sector actors in the delivery of social services and the potential economic dangers of populist spending. Voters who supported these parties, however, still held more traditional leftist views. To hedge against populist demands, the Concertación elite enacted party rules that limited the power of the rank and file.

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So the Concertación parties then limited participation and consultation, isolating the elite from their voters. The elite, in turn, could pursue a more moderate approach to economic, social and political reforms. This meant advances in some areas of social policy reform, but limited progress in other areas.

With time, the Concertación model of governance fed frustration among voters, who felt that policy reform and progress was too slow. The wave of large-scale protests that hit Chile in 2011 provided a clear example of this discontent. The steady decline in voter participation and party identification since the country’s return to democracy provide further evidence that voters do not feel represented by political parties.

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Rewriting the rules

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Michelle Bachelet’s 2013 presidential campaign focused on responding to voters’ unanswered demands. She pushed through reforms to the tax code, and the electoral and education systems. These reforms run far deeper than past efforts and seem to break with the cautious approach to governance seen in Chile’s center-left administrations. Moreover, the recent push to rewrite the Chilean constitution reveals an interest on the part of citizens to participate in defining the rules that govern their democracy.

Bachelet’s second term in office suggests that limits imposed during a democratic transition can be modified. Still, such a transformation requires a different kind of leadership. Despite the formation in 2013 of the Nueva Mayoría coalition, Chile’s main political parties continue to exhibit weak ties to voters and limited internal democracy, hindering this process of renewal.

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The Chilean case suggests that, yes, compromises forged during a transition to democracy have long-lasting consequences for the kind of democracy that will develop. Breaking with transitional legacies is likely to require deep institutional reform and leadership renovation — and these will not come easily. Although the Bachelet administration has begun to address institutional constraints, research suggests that political parties must restructure their organization to promote consultation and participation. If not, the new institutions will face a continued struggle to address voter discontent and deepen the country’s democracy.

Jennifer Pribble is associate professor of political science and international studies at the University of Richmond. She is the author of the book “Welfare and Party Politics in Latin America (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

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