The so-called Parliamentary Republic was not a true parliamentary system, in which the chief executive is elected by the legislature. It was, however, an unusual regime in presidentialist Latin America, for Congress really did overshadow the rather ceremonial office of the president and exerted authority over the chief executive’s cabinet appointees. In turn, Congress was dominated by the landed elites. This was the heyday of classic political and economic liberalism.
For many decades thereafter, historians derided the Parliamentary Republic as a quarrel-prone system that merely distributed spoils and clung to its laissez-faire policy while national problems mounted.The characterization is epitomized by an observation made by President Ramón Barros Luco (1910-15), reputedly made in reference to labor unrest: “There are only two kinds of problems: those that solve themselves and those that can’t be solved.” At the mercy of Congress, cabinets came and went frequently, although there was more stability and continuity in public administration than some historians have suggested. Chile also temporary resolved its border disputes with Argentina with the Puna de Atacama Lawsuit of 1899, the Boundary treaty of 1881 between Chile and Argentina and the 1902 General Treaty of Arbitration.
Political authority ran from local electoral bosses in the provinces through the congressional and executive branches, which reciprocated with payoffs from taxes on nitrate sales. Congressmen often won election by bribing voters in this clientelistic and corrupt system. Many politicians relied on intimidated or loyal peasant voters in the countryside, even though the population was becoming increasingly urban. The lackluster presidents and ineffectual administrations of the period did little to respond to the country’s dependence on volatile nitrate exports, spiraling inflation, and massive urbanization.
In recent years, however, particularly when the authoritarian regime of Augusto Pinochet is taken into consideration, some scholars have reevaluated the Parliamentary Republic of 1891-1925. Without denying its shortcomings, they have lauded its democratic stability. They have also hailed its control of the armed forces, it respect for civil liberties, its expansion of suffrage and participation, and its gradual admission of new contenders, especially reformers, to the political arena. In particular, two young parties grew in importance – the Democrat Party, with roots among artisans and urban workers, and the Radical Party, representing urban middle sectors and provincial elites. By the early twentieth century, both parties were winning increasing numbers of seats in Congress. The more leftist members of the Democrat Party became involved in the leadership of labor unions and broke off to launch the Socialist Workers’ Party (Spanish: Partido Obrero Socialista – POS) in 1912. The founder of the POS and its best-known leader, Luis Emilio Recabarren, also founded the Communist Party of Chile.