In a groundbreaking plebiscite held on 25 October, Chileans went to the polls to vote whether to uphold or replace the Pinochet-era constitution. An overwhelming majority of 78% voted in favor to draft a new constitution and to hold a constituent assembly to draw up this new document. Elections for the candidates who will partake in the constituent assembly will take place in April. But, why did Chileans vote so massively in favor of a new constitution? And how will these events unfold?
The Pinochet-era Constitution
To understand the importance of this vote and specifically why most Chileans voted to draft a new constitution we have to go back to 1973, when Chile suffered a US-backed military coup at the hands of General Augusto Pinochet, who then ruled the country from 1973 to 1991. Pinochet made sweeping neoliberal economic reforms kowtowing to the United States’ ultraliberal economists from the University of Chicago under leadership of Nobel prize winner Milton Friedman, dubbed the Chicago Boys. The Chicago Boys used the Southern Cone country as their neoliberal playground and the country implemented radical neoliberal reforms by imposing minimalist state intervention policies, the privatization of public goods, market liberalization and fiscal and monetary austerity measures. This fueled the fires of growing inequality as prices for privatized services such as education, pensions and healthcare skyrocketed. Consequently, the cost of living in Chile rose and wealth was concentrated in the hands of the rich elites.
More importantly, these neoliberal policies were embedded into Chilean society since Pinochet drafted a new constitution in 1980 that enshrined these philosophies. Many Chileans, however, consider this constitution fraudulent and an abomination to their civil rights.They argue that the constitution was drafted by a dictator during a repressive regime which embodied torture, extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses. Moreover, they claim that the process in which the constitution got written and implemented was unjust. First, the full political spectrum was not consulted. Opponents, mainly leftist parties, were not included in the drafting process. Second, the plebiscite itself was rigged as the state had exclusive control over the media, which it used for intense propaganda campaigns. Additionally, the state were able to manipulate the voting process through double-voting and the disappearance of registers.
After Pinochet stepped down in 1991, Chile’s faith in democratic politics was not restored. The old established political parties and the elites decided to adhere to the dictator-era constitution. The feeling of apathy crystallized when the Rettig Report (officially called the National Committee for Truth and Reconciliation Report), designed to investigate the human rights abuses under Pinochet, proved disappointing as reparation programs for victims and investigations into perpetrators were limited or dismissed entirely. Roughly 75% of Chileans believe no reconciliation about the Pinochet-era has been achieved. This is significant considering that under Pinochet’s iron rule 3,000 died or went missing, 40,000 suffered human rights abuses, and 200,000 fled the country.
A Long Overdue Response
Despite several constitutional amendments, the last of which occurred in 2017, the constitution still did not represent the political ideals important to Chileans. An undercurrent of dissatisfaction and political aversion remained present, and when President Sebastián Piñera announced the increase of the nation’s underground fare last year, protests erupted. First, the students started marching the streets of Santiago in protest, but soon after, cross-section of Chileans of sectors and classes joined in outrage over low wages, the rise in living costs and one of the highest rates of inequality in Latin America. Calls for strikes and protests moved across country and within a matter of days, half a million protestors had taken to the streets in Santiago alone.
The persistent protests coalesced in the demand for a new constitution. Citizens collectively demanded a fundamental change in their way of life to recover their dignity, by expanding economic rights, such as redistribution of wealth from the few to the many; civil liberties, such as reproductive rights; and political rights, such as having women and indigenous quotas in politics. As protests did not lose momentum, Piñera made concessions to maintain order. The concessions included, among others, the suspension of the underground fare increase, raising pensions, and most notably, a national plebiscite to vote on whether to rewrite the national constitution.
The process for rewriting the constitution began on October 25, when Chileans went to the voting booth and were asked two questions. First, they had to vote on whether they approved or rejected the drafting of a new constitution. Second, they voted on who would be responsible for drafting the constitution: either a constituent assembly comprising specially elected representatives, or through a mixed convention, consisting half of current congressional members and half of newly elected representatives. Chileans voted with an overwhelming majority of 79% for a new constitution that would be drafted by a constituent assembly of newly elected representatives.
So what happens next?
On April 11 2021, Chileans will elect their constitutional convention consisting of 155 citizens: 75 men, 75 women and one extra man or woman. Interestingly, this will be the first constitution to have been written with gender parity as opposed to men writing the constitution. Congress is in the process of determining whether there will be a quota for indigenous people in this convention as well. Once this convention has been elected, the representatives will have nine months and a possible three-month extension to write the new constitution. After the drafting, the representatives must have a two-thirds majority approval to present the public the new constitution. If the new constitution is ready the Chilean public will vote once more by means of a mandatory plebiscite whether to ratify the new constitution or dismiss it. If a simple majority of the Chilean population votes in favor the Pinochet-era constitution will be replaced, but if they vote to reject it the old one will remain in place until a new course of action is set.
It will be interesting to see how these events unfold for several reasons. First, obtaining a two-thirds majority might be a high threshold to reach. If the representatives find themselves in an impasse, they will need to make comprises on sensitive topics to draft a constitution that has broad support. Second, the scope of the document might prove difficult to demarcate. Last year’s protests witnessed grievances over issues as wide as pensions and police brutality. People are concerned that the representatives might want to address all of these issues. This could result in a constitution that is inflexible and sets unpragmatic and unrealistic standards which will blur the line between what should be a written component of the constitution and what should be left for government to interpret and enforce. Third, the next general elections are set for November 2021. What will happen if the new constitution is not ready by then? What power will a new president have over the drafting process and how will his or her role change when the new constitution is set in place? This is supposed to be an apolitical process, but currently one of the highest polling candidates to win the next general elections is the right-wing candidate Joaquín Lavín of the Unión Democrática (Democratic Union). Despite voting in favor of a new constitution he represents a wealthy elitist district who overwhelmingly voted against the new constitution and approves of the status quo. Some politically dispirited Chileans are worried that the future president might interfere with the elections. In reality, however, this seems unlikely considering the overwhelming majority opting for a new constitution and the political backlash an interfering president will receive from the general public. Last, the scope of the constitution might have consequences for the country’s economy. For example, an increase in rights for the environment and indigenous people might put a dent in Chile’s extensive copper, lithium, and gold and silver mining projects. A decrease in mining output could seriously affect its export, trade in general, and subsequently its GDP. Will Chileans cope when subsidies shrink in the face of economic uncertainty?
These uncertain times also leave room questions about Chile’s foreign policy. What will happen with Chile’s trade alliances? Since signing the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) in 2018, Chile’s congress still has not ratified the agreement. This begs the question if new rights for the environment, indigenous people, and laborers contradict the CPTPP paving the way for a resignation from partnership? Similarly, existing and pending Free Trade Agreements might constitutionally violate the rights of Chileans. For example, in 2019, after years of protests, the Pascua-Lama gold-silver project could not get launched by Barrick Gold Corporation ruled a Chilean high court. With enshrined environmental rights and rights for indigenous people’s lands, such events might happen more frequently contradicting past trade deals. Is the new government up to the task to either renegotiate these agreements or circumvent the new constitution? Venezuela and Bolivia, both members of the Bolivarian Alliance for the peoples of Our America (ALBA), have witnessed similar but different power changes that cater to the social masses. Depending on specifics of the new constitution, Chile might align itself with this regional bloc rather than the Pacific Alliance group of which it is a current member. Moreover, Chile’s new social construct might set up the country to become a new ally for Venezuela on the regional and global stage. This could help to legitimize Maduro’s presidency and alleviate some of the immense pressures on Venezuela imposed by the western world and the regional powers.
A stunning result in the national plebiscite has provided Chileans with the opportunity to reclaim their dignity and their country. Nevertheless, the near future of Chile remains uncertain. Questions remain as to what degree the social reforms citizens so desperately seek can realistically be implemented. Furthermore, high levels of uncertainty and volatile circumstances that come with the outcome of the plebiscite compounded with the impact of coronavirus can negatively impact foreign investments, levels of trade, and consequently the entire economy of Chile. Questions about foreign alliances within Latin America are relevant too. Only time will tell how ambitious Chile’s new constitution will be, how it will operate de facto, and in which ways markets respond to the new constitution.