Chile Has an Opportunity to Write a New Chapter

Can Chile seize the opportunity to reshape its constitution and, in doing so, its future?
Chile, Chile news, news on Chile, Chilean, Chile elections, Chilean Constitution, South America, South America news, Maria Jose Valdes, Glenn Ojeda Vega

Santiago, Chile on 10/10/2020. © Diana Lotero Prada / Shutterstock

June 29, 2021 15:06 EDT

Chile is going through political change. In May, Chileans voted to elect an assembly that will write a new constitution. Those elected to redraw the country’s magna carta feature a large contingent of independents. Left-wing parties are most favorably positioned among institutional actors, but right-wing parties did not reach the one-third threshold needed to enjoy veto power.

At the end of 2019, months of social protest and days of violence across Chile gripped the country. At the time, mainstream political forces and President Sebastian Pinera’s government managed to appease the protesters and halt social upheaval. In return, he gave in to growing calls for a vote on whether or not Chile should get a new constitution.

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Almost a year later, in October 2020, Chileans voted in a national referendum and chose to abandon their current constitution, which was inherited from the era of General Augusto Pinochet. Now, the people have elected an assembly that is in charge of writing and proposing a new charter.

Tectonic Shift

In a race that represented a political earthquake, 155 constituents were elected to form a Constitutional Convention. Chile’s traditional political elite lost significant ground to independent candidates, political influencers and social movements.

Center-right and center-left parties, which led the transition to democracy in the 1990s, took the hardest hit. Chile Vamos, a center-right coalition led by the president, failed to reach the one-third of seats it expected. Pinera has led the country since 2018 and had previously governed between 2010 and 2014. The loss means Chile Vamos cannot veto reforms perceived as too left leaning.

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Apruebo Dignidad, a new, more militant left-wing coalition, outperformed the traditional center left, known simply as Apruebo. Now, Apruebo Dignidad has senior-partner status and a more favorable position within the Constitutional Convention than the Apruebo coalition. A faction of the Apruebo Dignidad coalition, known as the Frente Amplio, first entered the political stage in 2017, emerging from student movements with a militant agenda.

Independent candidates are the biggest winners. The convention is controlled by 64% of constituents who do not belong to a political party — only 36% of them are party militants, excluding the 17 seats reserved for indigenous peoples. However, it is fair to say that most of these independent constituents have left-leaning affinities.

The next step in the country’s constitutional process includes the swearing-in of the convention, which will be on July 4. This will be followed by nine months of discussions and the drafting of the new magna carta. Once the new constitution is ready, a national plebiscite or referendum will be held in which Chileans will vote on whether to adopt it.

Participation and Abstention

During the referendum in 2020, 79% of voters favored drafting a new constitution. Despite this, electoral participation has been weak throughout the entire process. In 2012, Chile abandoned compulsory voting. Since then, the fact that many Chileans choose not to vote might become an issue in the mid-to-long term. This could have an impact on how representative the Constitutional Convention is of public sentiment. The highest rate of voter participation throughout the constitutional review process was achieved during the initial referendum in 2020, in which 50.8% of registered voters took part.

Last month, just 43% of the 15 million registered voters cast their ballot, representing just over 6 million in a country of around 19 million people. Taking into account the number of null-and-void votes and blank ballot papers, only 38.3% of registered voters chose their preferred candidates for the composition of the Constitutional Convention. The numbers were even worse in the election of governors, which took place on June 13, in which only 19.6% of voters participated. This was the worst rate ever recorded in Chile.

A survey conducted two days after the May elections found that people did not vote for four main reasons. Some Chileans cited transportation problems to reach a voting site, while others mentioned election fatigue due to the number of votes that have taken place lately. Some were not sure who to vote for. Others said they had a general lack of interest in politics or in these polls. Election fatigue was compounded by the fact that the vote for the convention was held at the same time as regional and local elections — the latter of which were part of the regular electoral schedule.

Short-Term Fallout

Only after the May election did important developments take place. On May 19, three days after polls closed, parties had to register their candidates for the presidential primaries, which will be held in July. The primaries will determine who runs in the general election in November. Whoever wins that contest would be in charge of implementing Chile‘s constitutional transition.

Thus, the last few weeks have represented a political earthquake for traditional coalitions. In particular, the historically dominant center left dropped several presidential candidates for November’s contest. It also broke historical alliances and failed to reach broad agreements to nominate a single coalition candidate for the general election. Only the center-right Chile Vamos and the left-wing Apruebo Dignidadregistered their candidates for the primaries on July 18. To the surprise and concern of many, communist candidate Daniel Jadue will, according to the latest polling, make it to the presidential election’s runoff.

Meanwhile, the June election for the 16 governors of Chile’s regions, which is an early indicator for the presidential race, shifted territorial power to the moderate left.

The outcome of the presidential and parliamentary elections will be significant in the short term as it will determine the checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches of government. This, in turn, will affect the practical workings of the Constitutional Convention. It will also have an impact on whether Chile’s political shift to the left is structural or temporary.

The End of the Chicago Boys

With this in mind, it is currently difficult to predict the makeup of Chile’s next government. The question is whether it will be dominated by left-wing forces or if the Chile Vamos coalition manages to distance itself from the unpopular Pinera and secure another term in office. Nevertheless, as the work of the Constitutional Convention gets underway, it is evident that the resulting charter will represent a much more socioeconomically progressive framework than what Chile has had since its transition to democracy in 1990.

Chile’s new constitution will undoubtedly turn the page on the country’s laissez-faire orthodoxy inherited from the “Chicago Boys,” who shaped the country’s economy under Pinochet. The constitution will likely also have an impact on other issues, including gender equality, the recognition of indigenous peoples, the social safety net and environmental concerns.

It remains to be seen whether Chile’s constitutional revisions will set it on a path of more equitable growth or one of uncontrolled state spending. But one thing is clear: Chile’s post-Pinochet model has become unsustainable. It is now up to the statespersons of South America’s most prosperous and advanced economy to ensure that this chapter does not go down in history as a missed opportunity.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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