Protests in Chile. Photo by Natalia Reyes Escobar via www.commons.wikimedia.org, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/

Democracy in Chile: A Ballot That Could Redefine the Country’s Rules

A year after intense protests against inequality swept Chile, citizens will vote in a referendum on whether the country should update its constitution. What next for a country on the brink of a big shift?

One recurring theme in Latin American politics, is how regularly the rules of the constitutional game change. Studies show that, on average, Latin American countries rewrite their constitutions every twenty years. Until recently, Chile was an exception. The country’s transition to democracy in 1990 was based on rules dating from the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet but these were thrown into question by widespread social uprising last October. This prompted leaders from across the political spectrum to back constitutional change as an exit route to the crisis.

Due to the Corona crises, a referendum scheduled for April had to be postponed. But on October 25, Chileans will finally go to the ballot box to vote on whether they want a new constitution and, if so, how it should be drawn up. If the option of constitutional change wins, elections will be called for April 2021, with the goal of establishing an assembly that would write a new constitution within a maximum of twelve months.

Other countries have faced similar challenges in their republican life. Chile’s political party system has hit an impasse, following in the footsteps of Colombia and Venezuela in the 1980s, or Ecuador and Bolivia in the 1990s. As outlined in the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) 2020 Report “the Chilean party system has become increasingly fragmented and polarized in recent years, and is in a period of transition in which new actors are vying with powerful incumbents against a background of low public trust in political parties”.

Recent protests came against a backdrop of a political elite that was entrenched in their positions of power, an increase in corruption scandals, falling popular trust in the system, and a decrease  in voter turnout.

The social uprising in Chile was sparked by people’s high levels of personal debt and their sense of prevailing social injustice. An often repeated rallying cry since October 18, 2019, has been that “Chile woke up,” although, in reality, progressive social activism dates from the mid 2000s.

An anti-elite uprising

Inequality is not the only factor behind the recent protests in Chile. As in all of Latin America, socioeconomic inequality has been a constant variable for several decades. Protesters took aim at the powerful elites, voicing criticism at abuses of power in the spheres of politics, business, religion and the military. Over the past decade, price fixing among large private companies took place in pharmacies and supermarkets, altering the cost of toilet paper and a long list of other basic products. In addition, there was evidence of illegal financing of political campaigns, involving the majority of Chile’s political leaders. While crimes such as petty theft were punishable by jail, white collar crimes were punished with small fines or ridiculous penalties such as attending “ethics classes.”

For decades, Chile, along with Uruguay and Costa Rica, stood out from the rest of Latin America because of the institutional strength of its government. But now Chile is facing the progressive collapse of the traditional political party system.

Widespread calls for reform

In recent years Chile’s political center has lost its hold: the left is highly fragmented, the right is more radical and there is a sharp drop in voter turnout, with less than 50 percent of eligible voters participating in presidential elections and less than 40 percent in municipal ones. The increased polarization of the elite has created a climate of confrontation. Political parties have stopped fulfilling their role as intermediaries, meaning that the protests are practically the only form of expressing social discontent.

Faced with the crowds demonstrating on the streets, politicians kickstarted plans for the October referendum. Hopes for change are running high among many Chileans. A recent survey shows that 64 percent of the respondents are planning to vote and 74 percent support the idea of changing the constitution.

Chile is likely to enter an intense period of change, encompassing the next presidential elections (November 2021) and the drafting of a new constitution. This offers scope for the elite to reconnect with citizens, who are tracking the process with both hope and suspicion. The next two years will likely involve uncertainty but also renewed politicization. As happened in Colombia in 1991, Chileans, facing a series of social crises, look set to opt to deepen democracy and to overturn their old constitutional guidelines. There is already evidence of change. After the October 2019 social uprising, for example, the political elite agreed to review fundamental aspects of the Constitutional rule relating to indigenous people and social rights. If October’s ballot opens the door to a new Constitution it will likely include new rules on equality and reserved seats for indigenous peoples. For many Chileans, such a move is long overdue.

First published by The Fair Observer

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