The democratic election of the regional governor is one of the main political decentralization measures that Chile has taken to ensure that decisions are no longer taken exclusively in the capital. Since July 14, these authorities have led the governments of the 16 regions of the country. However, the central government took several steps to hinder the process, trying to maintain the power shares accumulated over time.
This landmark takes place in a complex and uncertain context. In addition to the economic and public health difficulties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Chilean political system is going through a major legitimacy crisis, marked by intense social mobilization and which recently began work on a constitutional convention to draft its new Constitution.
In this sense, it must be considered that political changes and problems occur not only at the national level, but are also increasingly present at the sub-national level, as the elected governors will rise to their posts amid legal uncertainties, lack of skills, lack of space. to operate and attempt to reduce the financial resources required to perform their duties.
Governors under supervision
Although governors are autonomous from central government, their management will continue to depend in many ways on projects at this level. Next to the figure of the governor, there will be a regional presidential delegate, an authority representing the president in the region, who will have the internal powers of the government, the execution of the policies of the central government in the territory and the supervision of the public services. .
The regional governor will have the power to allocate regional development funds, although the regional delegate is responsible for coordinating the deconcentrated public services which often manage these funds in the territories.
In this sense, any regional strategy will imply the need to establish a negotiation process with the representatives of the president in order for their functions to be effective. Thus, the figure of the delegate becomes a symbol of centralism, of the relationship of control and surveillance which has been perpetuated for decades. In short, we observe a certain paternalism of the central State with regard to the regions, as if they did not have the maturity or the sufficient capacity to administer, govern and, ultimately, decide autonomously.
Another difficulty that governors will have to face is the lack of precision as to the powers they will have. At the end of May this year, a “small decentralization law” was adopted to transfer powers from the central government to regional authorities. However, the law was not promulgated, although the installation of the governors is already a fact, and under a reality in which the data indicate an increase in poverty, extreme poverty and inequalities in the regions of the Chile.
Central government blocks decentralization
Governors-elect will begin their term with significant and troubling resource issues. In the days following the inauguration, they were informed that the Budget Department (DIPRES) was going to reduce its operating budget. More than a simple reduction in funds, the government’s measure was to transfer these financial resources to regional presidential delegates. Note that the election of governors was a major electoral defeat for the government: of the 16 new governors, only one joined the presidential coalition.
Under pressure from the new authorities and public opinion, the government had to reverse this decision. Nonetheless, the transfer of resources from governors to delegates has had deep political significance, in an attempt to weaken the new authorities who will be opponents of a government with little legitimacy. As we have seen in other contexts, regional political authorities can act as an important counterweight to the executive. With these measures, the government faces the fears of the new authorities; after all, decentralization implies that the territories gain a share of power to the detriment of the center.
Despite all the difficulties described above, the new governors are entering a new political cycle with democratic legitimacy that regional authorities never had before. Without a doubt, his election constitutes the biggest reform of political decentralization since the return to democracy. So, on the basis of this legitimacy, we have to move towards institutional legitimacy, and that will be when people see changes and the election of this figure is not a waste of time or a matter of witnessing.
Decentralization as an instrument of regional development
Decentralization cannot be an end in itself; it must be considered as a political instrument that can be effective insofar as its instruments are very limited and political, financial and administrative autonomy is reinforced. In other words, it must produce real power and not with catastrophic logic, because the objective must be to make more decisive progress on the multiple problems which plague the territories and which must be solved from there.
In Chile, centralizing public policies have systematically demonstrated their inability to take into account the existing territorial diversity. The case of La Araucanía is one of the most emblematic, both because of the historical conflicts that have arisen between the Chilean state and the Mapuche people, but also because it is recognized as one of the most poor people of the country. We therefore look forward to the start of this new political cycle, in which governors can change power dynamics and regional policies, despite efforts to streamline the process.
In the short term, the key will be coordination between the different governors and the ability to negotiate with other actors in the political system, in order to consolidate their institutional legitimacy. In the long term, the legal consolidation of well-defined skills and resources will be central. The current constituent process opens a window of opportunity to translate the latter to the constitutional level.
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