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Chile's Congress sits empty

Chile's lawmakers don't want to work on Thursday. In fact, as of mid-November, they won't work at all.

Chile's President Michelle Bachelet delivers her annual address at the national congress building in Valparaiso city, about 75 miles northwest of Santiago, May 21, 2008. (Eliseo Fernandez/Reuters)

SANTIAGO, Chile — Chile’s 120 members of Congress have announced that as of mid-November, they will stop showing up for work. They are not striking or protesting. They are just skipping work for a month because they have more important things to do, like winning an election.

As the Dec. 13 general elections nears, the Congress building in Valparaiso has emptied of Chile’s well-paid civil servants responsible for making laws. Many are on the campaign trail, trying to get re-elected or supporting their presidential candidate.

Two of the four candidates are also members of Parliament: Deputy Marco Enriquez-Ominami and Senator Eduardo Frei. The other two are right-wing businessman Sebastian Pinera and Jorge Arrate, representing the left.

It has proven difficult to reach a quorum during the afternoon sessions on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and a dwindling number of representatives were attending the three-hour morning meetings from Tuesday to Thursday, when they are supposed to discuss and vote on new laws.

They were all just too busy on the campaign trail.

And on Thursdays, when there are no commissions in the afternoon, deputies weren’t showing up at all. So in mid-October, the party leaders of the Chamber of Deputies unanimously and unilaterally decided that it’s better to adapt to reality than make their representatives do the job they were elected to do.

They voted to take Thursdays off work so they could have more time for campaigning. And as of Nov. 17 and until the elections, the Chamber of Deputies will shut down altogether. But they will not surrender their salaries and allowances of about $11,000 a month.

Congress is normally expected to work 11 months a year. During that time, legislators are expected to spend three days a week working in the Congressional building. One week a month is be spent back in the district they represent.

This is not the first time they've taken a few liberties with that schedule come election season. But only this year did they formally establish it through an agreement that absolved them of all their normal duties.

The deputies say that technically they are not suspending their work, just “reprogramming it.” They promised they would make up for it in the 10 days between the elections and Christmas.

The decision does not extend to the Senate.

“They’re an embarrassment. We are all paying them — and a lot — with our tax money to do their job. If any worker in this country stopped going to work, he would be fired immediately,” said Fabiola Ramirez, a sales clerk.