Chile president launches long-awaited electoral reform bill

SANTIAGO Wed Apr 23, 2014 10:51am EDT

Chile's President Michelle Bachelet answers a question during a news conference at the La Moneda Presidential Palace in Santiago, March 12, 2014. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Chile's President Michelle Bachelet answers a question during a news conference at the La Moneda Presidential Palace in Santiago, March 12, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Ivan Alvarado

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SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chilean president Michelle Bachelet sent Congress a bill on Wednesday to reform an electoral system inherited from the country's 17-year military dictatorship, making good on a key campaign promise.

"This is a long-held desire that has dragged on for more than two decades," said Bachelet, who was sworn in for a second non-consecutive term last month.

The current electoral system, devised under dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet's regime, effectively guarantees that the two biggest party coalitions dominate Congress, with neither having a large majority. It also almost always assures that independents are underrepresented.

Although the government has not yet published full details of the bill, Bachelet said it would include proposals to add 12 seats to the Senate for a total of 50 and increase the Lower House by 35 seats to 155. Districts would be redrawn to better reflect demographics.

It also seeks to have a more equal representation of men and women in Congress, mandating that no more than 60 percent of representatives of any party be of the same sex.

"Let's not mince words, the binominal system is a thorn in the heart of our democracy, it's a system that owes its existence to the dictatorship and that perpetuates exclusion," said Bachelet at the La Moneda presidential palace.

The electoral system introduced by Pinochet is known locally as being "binominal".

Bachelet's center-left Nueva Mayoria coalition, which ranges from moderate Christian Democrats to communists, does not have the necessary three-fifths majority in Congress to pass the bill and will have to negotiate with the right-wing opposition and independent lawmakers to get it onto the statute books.

However, some have already suggested that they could throw their weight behind some of her policies.

The electoral reform bill comes a day after Congress approved a law giving Chileans living abroad, estimated at around 800,000, the right to vote. Their exclusion was another legacy from the 1973-1990 Pinochet dictatorship.

(Reporting by Anthony Esposito Editing by W Simon)

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