Chile’s Constitutional Convention: The Ascent of the Anti-Establishment Left and the Death of the Moderate Center

˙ Voces

On May 15 and 16, 2021, Chile held mega-elections for mayors, council-members, regional governors, and representatives to the Constitutional Convention. These were the first elections for public office since the 2019 mass protests and the October 2020 referendum that approved the national process to write a new constitution. The campaigns for the Constitutional Convention received the most attention due to the Convention’s history-making task to draft Chile’s new constitution over the course of the next nine to twelve months. The results of the election have sent a jolt through Chilean politics.

First, the right-wing coalition obtained only 37 of the 155 seats in the Convention. Their coalition had hoped to achieve at least one third of the seats, providing them with an effective veto over the drafting of the new constitution because the rules require a two-thirds majority for the inclusion of any article. The resulting underperformance have handed yet another defeat to President Piñera and his ministers, who are already dealing with the lowest approval ratings in the history of Chile. The right-wing parties failed to earn one third of the seats despite outspending every other coalition. While the right-wing did worse than expected, they still obtained more seats than any other electoral list.

Second, the political establishment as a whole and not just those on the right had a poor showing in the Constitutional Convention elections. The right, center-left and left obtained 90 of the 155 seats, leaving the remaining 65 seats to representatives unaffiliated with the traditional parties. Left-wing parties received 28 seats while center-left parties received 25. The most stunning result saw the Christian Democrats (DC) win only two seats while the Party for Democracy (PPD) won only three. Throughout the 1990s, these two parties dominated Chilean politics and were responsible for managing the democratic transition following the Pinochet dictatorship and massive economic expansion under Presidents Patricio Alywin, Eduardo Frei, and Ricardo Lagos. The essential null power that these two parties have in the Constitutional Convention marks a dramatic death for the politics of the transition generation, which were already on life support given the 2019 mass protests. Even if the DC and PPD were to team up with the right-wing to form a moderate block, their combined representation would not be enough to veto proposals and force negotiations.

Third, the power brokers in the Constitutional Convention will be the independent, indigenous, and non-partisan representatives. This grouping covers 65 of the 155 seats, amounting to more than 40 percent of the total. Because most of these representatives are entering formal politics for the first time and are members of newly formed electoral lists, questions abound. Who are they? What are their ideological inclinations? With whom will they negotiate and form pacts? Media and political analysts are only just beginning to answer these questions. Out of this large, heterogenous group there are initial groupings that help to understand the direction that the Constitutional Convention will go.

The Lista del Pueblo, for example, won a hefty 27 seats, which gives them more power in the Convention than the list of center-left parties that governed Chile for 24 of the last 31 years. The Lista del Pueblo is ideologically left-wing but with a sharply anti-establishment attitude and non-partisan commitments. After the election, the leader of the list declared that they will not negotiate with the right, will not defend any aspect of Chile’s current economic model, and will only come to agreements with people, not political parties.

The list of Independents for a New Constitution won 11 seats and ran on the slogan of “independent but not neutral.” They support placing human dignity as the core value behind the new constitution and hope to establish a social democratic, decentralized, plurinational and modern state.

A final group outside the political establishment worth mentioning are the indigenous representatives, which have 17 seats after being chosen in ethnicity-based elections. The most important group is the Mapuches, with seven representatives, including Machi Linconao who is a prominent activist for the recovery of ancestral lands and has previously been imprisoned four times. The indigenous representatives will presumably push for more official recognition and greater control over their territories. Their 17 votes could be key in bringing proposed articles over the two-thirds threshold.

The failure of the right to obtain sufficient seats for a veto, the near total rejection of the moderate parties that historically have governed Chile, and the stunning power of anti-establishment, independent leftists all point towards a Convention that will draft a thoroughly leftist new constitution. While constitutional change along these lines would represent a major achievement for the enshrinement of social rights, the financial press is already running headlines about the possible economic consequences. The Santiago stock exchange fell ten percent in one day after the results of the election were announced and Goldman Sachs warned that the “extreme left” could have negative effects for the market. These fears will only grow worse as the presidential elections in November 2021 draw near and left-wing candidates such as Communist Mayor Daniel Jadue continue to lead in polls. There is a strong chance that by early next year Chile will find itself in the midst of a profound economic, social and political transformation under a radical left-wing president and Constitutional Convection. Nevertheless, whatever its form, the drafting and enactment of a new constitution is an opportunity for the creation of a new social contract between the government and the Chilean people. Given that Chile has long been held out as a model of democracy and economic success, changes in the country’s social contract could have important repercussion beyond its borders and particularly for a region in the midst of intense social turmoil.

William Skewes-Cox is a human rights lawyer and a former consultant with the Dialogue’s Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program. He holds a J.D. from Georgetown Law and a Master’s in Global Politics from the London School of Economics. He previously studied and worked in Chile for five years as a teacher and journalist. He maintains permanent residency in the country and votes in the country’s elections.

 

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