Latin America Advisor

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Will Chile’s Failed Constitution Vote Bring More Unrest?

Photo of Boric Chilean President Gabriel Boric, pictured voting on Sunday, pushed for acceptance of a new constitution, which voters rejected. // Photo: @gabrielboric via Twitter.

Chileans on Sunday overwhelmingly rejected a proposed 388-article constitution that was drafted following protests in 2019 and 2020 in which demonstrators blasted social inequality in the country and demanded better public services. While supporters of the proposed constitution have said it would bolster social rights and environmental protections, its detractors have said it would hinder investment and crimp economic growth. What are the main reasons behind voters’ rejection of the proposed constitution? What will now result from the vote? Who are the biggest winners and losers following the referendum?

Jorge Heine, research professor at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, and a former Chilean government cabinet minister: “Ever since the social uprising of Oct. 18, 2019, and despite the pandemic and a recession, Chile followed a strict institutional path to reach a fairer and more inclusive new social pact. Why this seemingly counterintuitive outcome? A critical turning point was the decision by the Chilean Congress to allow independent candidates to run in the equivalent of party lists for the constitutional convention. This led to the election of vast numbers of delegates with no experience, little expertise and no accountability to party discipline. They reveled in identity politics (one of them, who faked having cancer, was almost elected president of the convention), took months to start drafting a new charter, and otherwise made fools of themselves. By the time they came up with a text, the damage had been done, and the convention had lost much credibility. The far-too-long text (388 articles), would have abolished the Chilean Senate, weakened the judiciary and introduced a serious imbalance in the political system with an all-powerful Congress of Deputies, and it listed a veritable smorgasbord of rights. It was a disaster in the making. Because leftist independents had a two-thirds majority in the convention, they ignored all proposals from right-wing delegates, sowing the seeds for what happened on Sunday. The big loser is the government of President Gabriel Boric, who came out strongly in favor of the new text, and, with barely six months in office, runs the risk of becoming a lame-duck president. The big winner is the Chilean right, which once again has veto power on the way forward to a second attempt at a new charter.”

Alexandra Huneeus, professor of law and director of the Global Legal Studies Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School: “In October 2020, Chileans voted by an 80 percent majority to hold a constitutional convention. Last Sunday, they voted by more than 60 percent to reject the draft text submitted by the convention. What explains this dramatic failure? Many point to the draft itself, and it is true that the text had problems. But so does the current constitution, including its origin in the Pinochet dictatorship. The failure is one of politics, and in particular the politics of the convention itself. The draft was in many ways a powerful response to the social demands for a more equal society that led to its drafting in the first place. But the convention’s delegates taken together stood to the left of the country as a whole. Further, more than half were independents not traditionally aligned with a political party. As a result, the convention committed to progressive new ideas such as creating a plurinational state but was unable to convince the country. Chileans, the vote suggests, are committed to a creole national identity rather than a multicultural one. Sunday’s victors celebrated with empanadas and cueca, a traditional creole dance. The biggest losers are President Boric, six months into his term; Chile’s Indigenous peoples, who deserve constitutional recognition but will now see their interests set back; and Chileans overall. The country was thrown into political turmoil starting in 2019 with massive protests. Now the uncertainty will continue. President Boric is pushing for a new path to replace the 1980 constitution. This time, Congress and the political parties would mediate the process. This is the best option. The challenge will be convincing the right-wing parties to participate given their resounding victory.”

Peter DeShazo, visiting professor of Latin American, Latino and Caribbean Studies at Dartmouth College and former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs: “Chileans lost an opportunity to strengthen national consensus through the process of drafting a new constitution, but Sunday’s plebiscite vote may offer another chance. While in 2020, more than three-quarters of voters favored replacing the 1980 constitution, on Sunday an overwhelming majority rejected the document that the constitutional convention produced. The contrast was stark between initial euphoria for a new constitution that would address Chile’s problems and the subsequent lack of citizen confidence in and support for both a drafting process that was dominated by the left—and the final text that emerged from the convention. The vote was a severe defeat for President Boric and especially for the most left-wing elements of his government, who were deeply invested in approval of the constitution. The unexpectedly large margin of the ‘reject’ vote, which triumphed in 98 percent of Chile’s administrative districts, is triggering a reset of the political landscape that may favor more moderate elements—including those within the Boric coalition. Boric is committed to reinitiating the constitutional process, but he will need buy-in from center/left and center/right political forces. Public opinion is in sync; recent polling indicated that there is strong majority support among voters for developing a new constitution in the wake of Sunday’s result. Drafting a new constitution capable of winning broad support could, therefore, be a mechanism to promote greater national unity—even in an atmosphere of intense political competition—if the lessons from the plebiscite are learned and applied.” 

Naomi Roht-Arriaza, distinguished professor of law emeritus at the University of California, Hastings: “The vote was as much about the long, complicated, badly written text—that few people read in its entirety—and the disinformation campaign about its contents, as it was about a rejection of specific ideas. The supposed radical nature of some of the changes was wildly exaggerated. The manipulation of the draft’s proposal for a ‘plurinational’ nation to whip up opposition follows the playbook of the right in other countries that have tried to reset their relationship with Indigenous groups. This, despite increased recognition worldwide that Indigenous systems of justice exist and are widely used, and that the Chilean proposal—for autonomous courts with Supreme Court oversight—is a fairly standard, non-radical way of linking formal and informal systems. Similarly, the environmental provisions of the draft were also less radical than they appeared; the ‘rights of nature’ idea has been approved by courts in Colombia, New Zealand and elsewhere. The danger now is that without the momentum of 2019, any new process will stall or degenerate into endless wrangling that will consume the Boric administration. It’s important that the government pursue its agenda independently of whatever entity takes up round two. Chile should learn from Tunisia, another country that attempted broad, inclusive constitutional reform after widespread protests. By the time a final draft was completed, support for the reform government had dissipated, the economic and social reforms at the heart of the revolution were unenacted, and the population was exhausted and disillusioned. As several analysts told me, it would have been better for Tunisians to aim for less sweeping reforms at the constitutional level and spent more time on ordinary legislation that directly responded to the widespread protests of 2011. The same may be true of Chile.”

Patricio Navia, clinical professor of liberal studies at New York University and professor of political science at Universidad Diego Portales in Chile: “Voters’ overwhelming rejection of the proposed constitution should be interpreted as a rejection of extremism in Chile. With an 85 percent turnout, more than 62 percent of Chileans voted against the proposed constitution. The vote is a defeat for the far-left constitutional convention that chose to write a foundational text. It was also a defeat for President Boric. Six months into his leftist government, Boric actively campaigned for the constitution to be approved and now owns that defeat. The good news is that Chileans made it clear that they want to replace the Pinochet-era constitution, but they do not want to chart a new course for their country. They want a new constitution that allows the country to move forward on the path of market-friendly economic growth and builds a stronger social safety net with wider protection of social and consumer rights. The Boric administration will have to swallow its pride and abandon the claim that Chile needs to change course and adopt a more state-centered economic model. If Boric hears the message that so eloquently Chileans gave the political class on Sunday, he can preside over a period of moderate and gradual reforms that strengthen Chile’s democracy and make it more inclusive. If he champions moderate reform policies, he will succeed in replacing the Pinochet-era constitution, and he will lead the country to a better place.”

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