Chile Rejects Proposed Constitution: A Setback for the Left, But the Next Round Now Begins

Bill Young

Summary: On the deeply radical content of the new constitution, the forces that produced and opposed it, and the prospects for the future — Editors

Chileans Reject the Proposed Text. And Recommit to Constitutional Change

In October 2020 Chileans approved by a margin of almost 80% the request to draft a new Constitution and to do so through a Constitutional Convention directly elected from the people. This Constitutional Convention presented its final draft for national approval on September 4, 2022. In response to the question “Do you approve the text of the New Constitution proposed by the Constitutional Convention?”, 62% of Chileans said no. President Gabriel Boric, himself a supporter, acknowledged this was an “overwhelming and decisive” rejection and immediately called on Congressional leaders of all parties to discuss options to continue the process to produce a new constitution.

In public discussions leading up to and following the September 4 vote, Chileans representing the Center, the Right, and the Left all continued to insist they want a new constitution to replace Pinochet’s 1980 Constitution. But clearly the large majority said this was not the one.

Nevertheless, the plebiscite is not an ending. As the next round of struggle begins, we see that the process continues. This is a struggle which burst forth twelve years ago but which has been present for fifty years. For five hundred years?

 

What Went Wrong?

Having won a decisive two-thirds majority of delegates to the Constitutional Convention in May 2021, Leftists, Left Independents, and Indigenous representatives were nonetheless unable to win a majority of voters in support of the Constitution they diligently worked to produce.

Among the 388 articles of the New Constitution there were a number of reforms that were praised and welcomed by women, youth, pensioners, trade unionists, and Indigenous representatives. However selected features were targeted for sustained criticism and disinformation from vested interests of the Right. These included the replacement of the Chilean Senate with a decentralized Chamber of Regions, and the definition of Chile as a “plurinational State” with recognition of special jurisdiction or “sovereignty” for the Indigenous peoples. There

were also allegations from the Right that the New Constitution permitted the government to seize your personal property including your house, or that it sanctioned late term abortion up to the ninth month. These were nowhere to be found in the document itself but were dominant themes in the disinformation circulating prior to election day.

The draft of this remarkable and visionary document was made known publicly in May of this year. It contained 388 articles but had less than four months to be known and discussed prior to the plebiscite. The length and complexity of the proposed Constitution. combined with sustained misinformation on social media, produced increasing doubt about its content among some sectors of the electorate. Nevertheless, indications are that those working and middle-class people who had the opportunity to study its contents liked it and voted to approve. The test case was Chile’s fourteen penal institutions. For the first time in Chile’s history, the constitutional process allowed incarcerated persons to vote. In thirteen prisons where the only source of information was private mass media, the inmates voted to reject the constitution that would have given them the vote, free legal defense, and an Ombudsman to prevent abuses. In the fourteenth prison legal aid volunteers brought copies of the proposed Constitution to discuss the impact for inmates and for their families. This group voted to approve.

Although unsuccessful on September 4, the New Constitution continues as a foundational document for future campaigns. Indeed, released to the public at the beginning of July, the New Constitution became the nation’s biggest non-fiction best seller, with sales averaging 10,000 copies per week. People continue to read and study it.

 

The Magnitude of the Defeat. Losing the Center

From the 62%-38% split in the September 4 plebiscite it is apparent the Constitutional Convention won its own Left base but lost the Center. With approximately two-thirds opposing the text it is apparent the Center voted with the Right against the proposed Constitution. The loss of the Center to the Right is painful because a shift of only 13% in Centrist support would have given victory to the Left.

It should be noted that voter abstention during the 2021 election of constitutional delegates was a shocking 57%. In other words, almost 60% of Chile’s eligible voters declined to vote in this crucial election. This gave the leftwing supporters of the New Constitution a solid two-thirds majority from the outset, and free rein to draft a visionary document. Mandatory voting was lifted by the neoliberal regime in 2012. In contrast, at the insistence of the leftwing Constitutional Convention itself, voting in the September 4, 2022 plebiscite was mandatory for all Chileans.

Boric Scrambles to Save the Constitutional Project and His Government.

Prior to September 4, analysts observed that polls showed support for the constitutional process dropped in line with the decline of Boric’s approval rating and that the September 4 plebiscite could also be seen as a referendum on his first six months in office.

Patricio Fernandez, an elected delegate to the Constitutional Convention and a long-term acquaintance of Gabriel Boric, said on September 5 that people should anticipate changes to the government team, including the introduction of politicians from outside the president’s coalition. Indeed, Boric has announced cabinet shake-ups are coming.

Be prepared for a marked move to the Center by Boric’s government. Expect an extension of Boric’s deepening relationship with the Center-Left Concertación coalition who governed Chile for 30 years. Be prepared for close negotiation with the Chilean Right. As the crisis plays out, the actions and the results remain to be seen.

 

Background And Content – The Constitutional Convention – The Constitution It Produced

The Constitutional Convention (2021-2022)- Background

The proposed constitution was drafted by a Constitutional Convention which was in many ways unique and unprecedented. The 155 constitutional delegates were elected from the general population. By the terms of the plebiscite the current government was not allowed to appoint any delegates. Sixty-five of those elected were independents with no political party affiliation and represented 42% of the total convention. One hundred-and-thirty-five delegates or 87% of the total had never held elected office before. By design there was parity of men and women, and 17 seats were set aside for Indigenous peoples. By comparison, all of Chile’s previous constitutions, from 19th century independence, from 1925, and from 1980 were drafted behind closed doors by groups of white men from the sociopolitical elite.

 

The New Constitution (2022)- Proposes A New Day for Chile

The document produced by the Convention shares aspects with recent Latin American constitutions along with unique Chilean features. The proposed Constitution incorporated the concept of plurinationality, the rights of Nature, a solidarity economy, the rights of workers to strike with or without a union, recognized the role of unpaid domestic labor and caregiving, called for the establishment of a National System of Caregiving, and provides tools for citizen ballot initiatives to propose new legislation and to repeal existing legislation. All this was presented with the intention of decentralizing government decision-making from the capital of Santiago to 16 self-governing regions in Chile who will observe gender parity in all governing bodies. The move to decentralize is to enable democratic economic and social planning at the local, regional, and national level. Also, the right to the voluntary interruption of pregnancy is guaranteed without restriction. Note that each of the New Constitution’s 388 articles required a

two-thirds majority vote to be approved. A number of controversial proposals given high visibility by critics in an effort to discredit the Convention were in fact rejected by the Convention itself and did not form part of the final proposal in any way.

 

The Struggle for a New Constitution – From the Right: Dogged Opposition and Relentless Obstruction

Needless to say, the Chilean Right which is happy with the existing neoliberal Constitution became distraught at the prospect of changing an arrangement which streams 60% of national wealth into the hands of 20% of the population. In the election of constitutional delegates, they were unable to elect a one-third blocking minority, coming short at 24%. As a result, the Right went into full opposition before the first article was even written. In the course of the convention’s proceedings, rightwing delegates stopped attending sessions in order to focus their attention on outside opposition to the proposed Constitution. Using the national coverage afforded by Chile’s press and television conglomerates, plus ever present social media, the Right launched a strong and systematic campaign of delegitimization of the constitutional process. Disinformation and fear-mongering regarding the deliberations of the democratically elected convention were combined with sustained personal attacks on the identities of progressive delegates as women, as Indigenous, and as LGBTQ persons. Indeed, BBC reports that a poll taken during the closing stages of the Constitutional Convention shows that more than half of those voting “Reject” gave as their reason a negative view of the internal functioning of the Convention itself.

 

Why Was a Constitutional Convention Called in the First Place? – The 2019 Grassroots Uprising

How did such a progressive leftwing project even arise, only to face this expected and implacable opposition? What would possess a neoliberal regime characterized by brutality to open the door to the rewriting of the nation’s constitution by directly elected delegates who had never held office, while all current government representatives were excluded, with a parity of men and women, not to mention a set aside for Indigenous delegates?

The answer is Chile’s grassroots uprising of 2019. Under the cry of “It’s not 30 pesos. It’s 30 years!” Chileans rose up against a subway fare increase to protest 30 years of sustained neoliberal assault on their lives. In a series of stunning events beginning October-November 2019 and continuing through 2020-2021, Chileans repeatedly mobilized millions of people in the street, enacted billions of dollars in targeted property destruction, and maintained a national shutdown, the result of which cut Chile’s 2019 economic growth rate by half (1.9%) according to the Atlantic Council. The rightwing government capitulated. The cabinet was dismissed. On November 15, 2019, exactly four weeks from the start of the uprising, the Chilean Congress approved a national plebiscite to ask 19 million Chileans, yes or no, if they wanted to rewrite the country’s Constitution and if they wanted to do so by directly electing delegates to a

Constitutional Convention. In the course of these events, it should be noted that protesters paid a high price in arrests, injuries, assaults, and death, yet did not back down.

According to activist and scholar Pablo Abufom, “It is impossible to understand the constitutional process in Chile apart from the popular uprising of October 2019, the event which marked the beginning of a new moment in our history.” Indeed, President Gabriel Boric, at his inauguration on March 11, 2022, declared to the assembled crowd, “We would not be here without the mobilizations of 2019. We came from the mobilizations. We cannot forget that.”

 

Conclusion: Two Elections in Chile – September 4, 1970 and September 4, 2022

When the Constitutional Convention set the date for the national plebiscite it deliberately chose September 4. This commemorated the day, September 4, 1970, when Salvador Allende was elected President of Chile.

It is striking that under conditions of mandatory voting the vote totals for Salvador Allende and for the 2022 Constitution are the same. They stand at 37% and 38% of the electorate, respectively.

Salvador Allende’s 37% was hailed as a great victory, He became President of Chile with a narrow plurality among three presidential candidates. Within three years the project was ended by catastrophic violence and trauma through a military coup and the imposition of a murderous counterrevolution from which it has taken fifty years to emerge.

The 2022 Constitution’s 38% is seen as a bitter defeat. However, history’s verdict has not been pronounced on the 2019 generation. Is this plebiscite the end? Or is it really the continuation of a long commitment and struggle?

Even if they had won the plebiscite, activists emphasize it would take “decades” of continued organizing, education, and struggle to make the changes real. So, win or lose the constitutional plebiscite, the task for them is undiminished and unchanged. In this regard, I take encouragement from the 2019 generation, from their thinking and their actions.

On August 10, in the final weeks before the September 4 plebiscite, Alondra Carrillo spoke with Pablo Abufom, “But if we win…it opens up a new realm of political challenges for us as a social movement. The constitutional forces now share a common challenge. Not to allow the completion of the job at hand to mean the end of our work together. What is not going to happen is that, with the document submitted, we all just go home.”

 

SOURCES

Abufom, Pablo. “Chile a las puertas de un momento histórico.” (“Chile at the door of an historic moment”) Viento Sur (August 18, 2022).

Barry, Eloise. “Chile Is Trying to Shed the Last Remnants of its Pinochet-Era Dictatorship.” Time (July 5, 2022)

Carrillo, Alondra. “Los movimientos sociales de cara a la nueva Constitución.” (“Social Movements Face the New Constitution”: Interview by Pablo Abufom) Jacobin América Latina (August 10, 2022)

Editorial Staff. “Triunfo del “rechazo” (“Triumph Of The “Reject” Option”) BBC News Mundo (September 4, 2022 & September 5, 2022)

Giustinianovich, Elisa. “Chile: transición hacia un nuevo orden constitucional.” (“Chile: Transition To A New Constitutional Order”) Jacobin América Latina (June 17, 2022)

Molina, Paula. “Triunfo del “rechazo”: La (aparente) paradoja de Chile” (“Triumph of the “Reject” Option: Chile’s Apparent Paradox”) BBC News Mundo (September 5, 2022)

Nohales, Karina. “La Constitución del pueblo.” (“The People’s Constitution”) Jacobin América Latina (May 31, 2022)

Safatle, Vladimir. “Chile- cómo se constrói uma vitória.” (Chile- How A Victory Is Made) A Terra é Redonda (December 27, 2021)

Vasconcelos, Joana Salém. “A encruzilhada chilena rumo à nova Constituição.” (“The Chilean Crossroad On The Way To A New Constitution) Jacobin Brasil (August 29, 2022)

Vergara, Camila. “Chile’s Rejection.” Sidecar, blog of The New Left Review (September 9, 2022)

Williams, David. “Bestseller: The draft constitution in Chile is the best-selling non-fiction book.” 24 World Hours (August 4, 2022)

Young, Bill. “Earthquake in Chile: Feminist Rescue and Dual Power – A New Beginning for the Left.” IMHO Journal (May 26, 2022)

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