Natalia Reyes Escobar / Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 4.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en

Odds Are Low as Chile Votes Again on Its Constitution

Chileans head to the polls to approve or reject the latest draft constitution, in what is the population’s fifth vote during a fraught four-year-long process. But what does the wrangling over the Pinochet-era constitution reveal about Chile’s democratic health?

On 17 December 2023, Chileans will return to the ballot box to vote on a new draft of the constitution after rejecting the first draft more than a year ago. Should this draft also fail – as the polls currently predict – the process will end, for the time being: President Gabriel Boric has signaled that a third attempt will not take place before his term ends in 2025.

The faltering constitutional process indeed captures Chileans’ portrayal as ‘dissatisfied democrats’: they believe in democracy but dislike its results. Chileans have attempted to write a new constitution via democratic means, namely referendums and elected, deliberative bodies. Yet the documents have not met voters’ expectations for social and economic change.

Unmet social demands

Chile launched its constitutional process in response to paralyzing social protests that erupted in October 2019. Thirty years of democracy had delivered political stability and economic growth, but the gains were not evenly distributed. The 1973-1990 Pinochet dictatorship had enshrined the country’s unwavering commitment to free market principles. The subsequent democratically-elected governments left this neoliberal model largely untouched.

As the 2022 Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) report for Chile notes, social stratification has hindered equality of opportunity and upward economic mobility. Then and now, about ten percent of Chileans control one-third of the country’s wealth. Against this backdrop, the report BTI wrote: “All sectors of society must have a serious debate on how to reduce inequalities, guarantee social rights and provide some universal minimums in a fiscally sustainable way.”

Frustration over persistent inequality brought diverse groups of protestors to the streets, including students, pensioners, laborers, Indigenous peoples, and feminists. Chileans long had felt unrepresented by the traditional parties. BTI tracks how identification with and trust in the parties had been declining steadily in the 2000s and 2010s. Protestors coalesced in demanding a new constitution precisely because they viewed the usual politicians and the usual piecemeal policy changes as no longer able to address their concerns.

The 15 November 2019 ‘Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution’ established a constitutional process that would rely on democratic practices and institutions. By incorporating the perspectives of all Chileans, political elites had the chance to resolve the country’s crisis of representation and reestablish legitimacy.

 A disappointing first attempt

Except that did not happen.

In the first referendum, in October 2020, about 80 percent of Chileans voted for elected delegates to write a new constitution. In May 2021, they chose largely newcomers and outsiders to occupy the convention. Most of the 155 delegates had never run for, let alone held, elected office before. Most came from the left, with more ties to social movements than the traditional parties. Gender parity rules ensured that women held half the seats, and reservations gave Indigenous peoples 17 seats (just about 11 percent).

This collection of progressives and reformists drafted a new charter with sweeping social and economic rights (while leaving the design of Chile’s electoral system and political institutions mostly intact). Yet when the September 2022 plebiscite arrived, a more pessimistic economic outlook combined with right-wing fearmongering to doom the charter. Fake news and misinformation flooded the campaign, presenting voters with exaggerated, worst-case scenarios. Opponents claimed, for example, that the new constitution would eliminate private property and give Indigenous peoples dominion over ‘regular’ Chileans.

When 62% percent of Chileans handed this draft a resounding ‘no’, social movements accepted this result. In another testament to faith in democratic procedures, the parties hammered out an agreement for a second constitutional process—but one with more guardrails. A 24-member ‘commission of experts’, all selected by congressional super-majorities, prepared the initial draft. A 50-member elected assembly—with gender parity but with no reservations for Indigenous peoples—made revisions.

An equally disappointing second attempt

This time, the right swept the elections. The Partido Repbulicano, a far-right party that did not exist before 2019, won 23 seats. Its leader, José Antonio Kast, openly admires Pinochet, deplores immigrants, promotes a ‘tough on crime’ agenda, and opposes abortion and gay marriage.

The arguments now levied against the second draft charter are mirror images of those aimed at the first. Mainstream and right-leaning commentators had argued the first draft titled too far left and failed to represent ordinary Chileans. Now, many say the current draft tilts too far right, reducing the state’s commitment to social spending and enshrining traditional family arrangements. If approved, many fear provisions could repeal recent, hard-won gains that expanded women’s reproductive rights and gay rights.

No matter whose interpretations are correct, the polls capture voters’ frustration. With estimates placing the ‘against’ vote between 52 and 60 percent, most Chileans apparently like the second draft constitution no better than the first.

Democracy without representation

Democratic theorists long have asked, is democracy about procedures or substance? Procedurally, Chile’s political regime appears strong. The country’s disparate political factions are still seeking consensus through democratic means.

But if procedures alone cannot ensure democratic legitimacy—if at some point, voters need outcomes they believe in—Chile’s future remains uncertain. Four years, five elections, and three deliberative bodies later, Chile is likely to still be governed by its dictatorship-era constitution. Both new drafts failed to advance economic and social frameworks that majorities could agree on.

With democratic procedures still not delivering broadly acceptable policies, the crisis of representation that sparked the 2019 social uprising remains unaddressed. A recent survey asked voters which of fourteen possible parties they identified with. Kast’s party received the most responses—which only amounted to ten percent. Sixty percent of respondents chose ‘none’.

These figures point to the constitutional process’s inability to reverse voter disaffection and its overall failure to restore parties’ legitimacy as vehicles of representation. These deficits pose long-term problems for democratic health, making disenchanted citizens especially vulnerable to extremist discourses—even as figures like Kast articulate visions of law-and-order more reminiscent of dictatorship than democracy. The question, then is how long dissatisfied democrats remain democrats.

A version of this article was first published by The Global Americans.

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