By the 1920s, the emerging middle and working classes were powerful enough to elect a reformist president, Arturo Alessandri Palma. Alessandri appealed to those who believed the social question should be addressed, to those worried by the decline in nitrate exports during World War I, and to those weary of presidents dominated by Congress. Promising “evolution to avoid revolution,” he pioneered a new campaign style of appealing directly to the masses with florid oratory and charisma. After winning a seat in the Senate representing the mining north in 1915, he earned the sobriquet “Lion of Tarapacá.” As a dissident Liberal running for the presidency, Alessandri attracted support from the more reformist Radicals and Democrats and formed the so-called Liberal Alliance. He received strong backing from the middle and working classes as well as from the provincial elites. Students and intellectuals also rallied to his banner. At the same time, he reassured the landowners that social reforms would be limited to the cities.
Alessandri soon discovered that his efforts to lead would be blocked by the conservative Congress. Like Balmaceda, he infuriated the legislators by going over their heads to appeal to the voters in the congressional elections of 1924. His reform legislation was finally rammed through Congress under pressure from younger military officers, who were sick of the neglect of the armed forces, political infighting, social unrest, and galloping inflation. whose program was frustrated by a conservative congress.
A double military coup set off a period of great political instability that lasted until 1932. First military right-wingers opposing Alessandri seized power in September 1924, and then reformers in favor of the ousted president took charge in January 1925. The Saber noise (ruido de sables) incident of September 1924, provoked by discontent of young officers, mostly lieutenants from middle and working classes, lead to the establishment of the September Junta led by General Luis Altamirano and the exile of Alessandri. However, fears of a conservative restoration in progressive sectors of the army led to another coup in January, which ended with the establishment of the January Junta as interim government while waiting for Alessandri’s return. The latter group was led by two colonels, Carlos Ibáñez del Campo and Marmaduke Grove. They returned Alessandri to the presidency that March and enacted his promised reforms by decree. The latter re-assumed power in March, and a new Constitution encapsulating his proposed reforms was ratified in a plebiscite in September 1925. The new constitution gave increased powers to the presidency. Alessandri broke with the classical liberalism’s policies of laissez-faire by creating a Central Bank and imposing a revenue tax. However, social discontents were also crushed, leading to the Marusia massacre in March 1925 followed by the La Coruña massacre.
The longest lasting of the ten governments between 1924 and 1932 was that of General Carlos Ibáñez, who briefly held power in 1925 and then again between 1927 and 1931 in what was a de facto dictatorship. When constitutional rule was restored in 1932, a strong middle-class party, the Radicals, emerged. It became the key force in coalition governments for the next 20 years.
The Seguro Obrero Massacre took place on September 5, 1938, in the midst of a heated three-way election campaign between the ultraconservative Gustavo Ross Santa María, the radical Popular Front’s Pedro Aguirre Cerda, and the newly-formed Popular Alliance candidate, Carlos Ibáñez del Campo. The National Socialist Movement of Chile supported Ibáñez’s candidacy, which had been announced on September 4. In order to preempt Ross’s victory, the National Socialists mounted a coup d’etat that was intended to take down the rightwing government of Arturo Alessandri Palma and place Ibáñez in power.
During the period of Radical Party dominance (1932-52), the state increased its role in the economy. In 1952, voters returned Ibáñez to office for another 6 years. Jorge Alessandri succeeded Ibáñez in 1958.
The 1964 presidential election of Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei Montalva by an absolute majority initiated a period of major reform. Under the slogan “Revolution in Liberty”, the Frei administration embarked on far-reaching social and economic programs, particularly in education, housing, and agrarian reform, including rural unionization of agricultural workers. By 1967, however, Frei encountered increasing opposition from leftists, who charged that his reforms were inadequate, and from conservatives, who found them excessive. At the end of his term, Frei had accomplished many noteworthy objectives, but he had not fully achieved his party’s ambitious goals.