Santiago, Chile, October 25, 2020. View of the vote cast by the winners in the Plebiscite in Chile. The paper reads: National Plebiscite 2020. Do you want a new constitution? + I Approve Rejected Photo credit: Klopping / Shutterstock.com
In a national referendum held on October 25, 2020, nearly 80 percent of Chileans agreed that the country should have a new constitution, to be written at a convention attended by specially elected delegates. The vote was the climactic result of weeks of paralyzing demonstrations in 2019, as students, feminists, workers, Indigenous peoples, pensioners, and thousands of others had taken to the streets to protest economic and social injustice.
With resounding majorities choosing change, Chileans returned to the street—this time in celebration, buoyed by hope that a new constitution would finally erase the legacies of the 1973–1990 military dictatorship.
Yet this very possibility left many in the established political and economic class unsettled. After all, they had benefited from the current system for more than two decades, while other sectors confronted limited economic and social mobility, inadequate social services, and perceived corruption in government. Many on the Right resisted the constitutional process from the outset.
Still, momentum for change continued building in the seven months leading to the election of delegates to the Constitutional Convention, in May 2021. At that time, voters delivered yet another blow to the traditional political class, choosing mostly electoral newcomers and independents to write the new constitution.
The center-right coalition Vamos por Chile (Let’s Go Chile) won 37 seats, securing a plurality—but far short of the coveted one-third that would give them veto power over the Convention’s text. The left-wing coalition Apruebo Dignidad (I Approve Dignity) and center-left coalition Lista del Apruebo (List of I Approve) secured 28 and 25 seats, respectively. The remaining seats were distributed among independents, either alone or in coalitions, and among Indigenous representatives.
By September 2021, the 155-member Constitutional Convention had gotten to work, its earliest decisions suggesting that Chile’s new charter would break with the exclusionary politics of the past. Delegates chose Elisa Loncón, leader of the Indigenous Mapuche, as president, and independent, but left-allied, Jaime Bassa as vice-president. They began working closely with civil society groups and technical advisors on everything from a feminist procedural code—deliberation rules that would ensure all delegates are heard, without intimidation or harassment—to consultation processes that incorporate citizen feedback, with special measures aimed at including Indigenous voices.
At the end of September, the Convention made its most difficult decision yet. Faced with the necessity of voting on the rules of procedure, some Left delegates challenged the 2/3 supermajority that the current constitution requires for the Convention to proceed. The weekend before the plenary debate on the two-thirds rule, president Sebastián Piñera—himself a billionaire that many accuse of embodying the old order—had announced an austerity budget for 2022. The budget rejected the Convention’s request for an additional several million Chilean pesos to support staffing and other operational expenses. More centrally, Piñera slashed public spending by 22.5 percent, sending a clear signal: the Right remains committed to its guiding neoliberal tenets of a small state and free markets. Starving the Convention of resources is part of the game.
At stake are ideological divisions that run deep. The requirement that a super-majority approve any and all text of the new constitution will push delegates towards consensus, a tendency which reassures those who fear the Convention might go too far—like declaring new economic and social rights that could bankrupt the state.
For the Left, the Convention offers a once in a lifetime opportunity to forge the foundations for building a more just and equitable society, one that embraces Chile’s diversity and places more decision-making power in the hands of truly representative institutions.
On September 29, leftist delegates in favor of removing the supermajority failed to convince the assembly, but the Convention successfully approved a procedural code that Loncón, Bassa, and other reformers hailed as inclusive and participatory. Now the real work begins, but it remains unclear if the Convention’s reform-oriented delegates can open a new chapter in Chile’s political history.
The system-wide dissatisfaction that sparked the 2019 protests had deep roots. Chileans had taken to the streets at various points since the mid-2000s, from high school and university students demanding better public education to Indigenous peoples denouncing persistent exclusion and state violence. In 2018, feminists captured national and global imagination for marching and striking against patriarchal privilege, rape, and sexual harassment. When the Piñera government imposed a public transit fare hike in October 2019, long-simmering anger from various economic and social sectors exploded in the largest and most violent protests yet.
Protestors insisted, “It’s not thirty cents, it’s thirty years.” By thirty years, they meant the end of the military dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet’s defeat in the 1988 plebiscite—in which 56 percent of voters rejected an extension of his rule—brought about free and fair elections. Yet the democratic transition left Chile’s neoliberal model intact. Education, healthcare, and pension systems remained privatized—even water is owned by transnational corporations and sold at usurious rates. Chile’s wealthy live comfortably while most Chileans lack a social safety net. Everyday Chileans have spent the democratic era watching the rich ger richer while public services deteriorated and became harder to access, limiting upward social and economic mobility.
The democratic transition compounded the problem by leaving the 1980 Pinochet-era constitution in force. The constitution offered the appearance of democracy while limiting popular sovereignty. The charter concentrates policymaking authority in the president and imposes constraints on the legislature, such as high quorums for constitutional reform and a Constitutional Tribunal empowered to intervene before laws are even passed. The constitution also installed a unique electoral system designed to advantage the Right and constrain the Left, one that favored incumbents and reduced turnover. Altogether, Chile’s political institutions made reform difficult, creating an inertia further exacerbated by fears that pushing too hard on political or economic liberalization would bring the military back out of the barracks. Democracy in Chile became rule by an insular political class largely oriented towards preserving the economic status quo.
Of course, nearly three decades of free and fair elections did lead to reforms. Most notably, in 2017, then-President Michelle Bachelet spearheaded the replacement of the so-called binomial electoral system with an open-list proportional representation system, including a 40 percent quota for women candidates that applied to all parties. The electoral reform injected new life into politics, further buoying younger political leaders who lacked older generations’ memories of the 1973–1990 dictatorship and thus lacked their fear about authoritarian reversals. Yet when the protests erupted in October 2019, it became clear that piecemeal reforms had been too little too late.
These protests came to center on a novel demand: a new constitution that would erase Pinochet’s economic and political legacy.
Conjuring memories of the dictatorship, Piñera—whose initial cabinet included politicians that supported the detention and torture of prisoners during the Pinochet regime—called protestors a “powerful and relentless enemy.” Police injured scores of demonstrators by firing rubber bullets into their eyes and subjected detainees to violence and even torture. Undeterred by the government’s violence, Chileans remained in the street.
The governing and opposition parties finally brokered a “12-Point Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution” on November 15, 2019.
What followed was a contentious process, protracted by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. At every step, the same political and economic cleavages kept appearing, pitting the conservative defenders of the status quo against a restive and reform-oriented majority.
The Right was largely opposed to a constitutional convention from the start. Once Piñera realized he had the losing side, he lobbied for a controlled process with limited popular input, proposing that Congress draft the new charter. Protestors rejected this solution, calling for a “constitutional assembly or nothing.” The Right then pitched a compromise: a mixed convention, evenly divided between members of Congress and specially elected delegates.
Ultimately, the Convention’s form was put to voters. The “12-pt Agreement” established a referendum on a new constitution that would pose two questions: “Do you want a new constitution?” and “What type of body should carry out the elaboration of a new constitution?” The second question offered voters the choice between Piñera’s mixed version, or a convention consisting entirely of elected delegates. The agreement also included the supermajority rule for the new constitution’s text, regardless of what form the Convention would take. It also stipulated that voters must approve any new charter in yet another referendum.
Both before and after the referendum, debates on the Convention’s exact form continued. Congress had agreed that an all-elected Convention needed to have gender parity but wrangled over the exact electoral mechanism. The Right also resisted implementing reserved seats for Indigenous peoples, drawing the debate out for months. Finally, Chile committed to the world’s most diverse constitutional convention. In the 155-seat Convention, half the elected delegates are women, and there are 17 seats reserved for Indigenous groups.
All delegates in the Convention have appealed to democratic principles. In defending the supermajority, the Right has invoked avoiding tyranny of the majority. In reminding delegates about voters’ demand for change, the Left has called on popular sovereignty. Yet their arguments cannot be separated from party politics.
The Convention itself bears some responsibility for blurring the boundaries between abstract principles and partisan concerns. After all, its first official declaration condemned the police brutality used against the 2019 protesters and all other political detainees. The declaration called for justice and human rights protections and urged Congress and Piñera to prioritize pending legislation on judicial pardons and reparations. For conservatives, this pronouncement far exceeded the Convention’s authority. For reformers, the forceful defense of human rights and dignity, issued by the world’s most diverse constitutional convention, with an Indigenous woman at the helm, was a powerful call for justice long denied.
Likewise, the Convention’s commissions send strong signals about its focus on rights and justice. Seven main commissions are guiding its work, including a commission on Human Rights, Historical Truth, and the Bases for Justice, Reparation, and Guarantees of Never Again, a commission on Participation and Indigenous Consultation, and a commission on Decentralization, Equity, and Territorial Justice. The commissions explicitly call out and reject Chile’s authoritarian legacy. They elevate Indigenous peoples’ rights and autonomy, and they gesture at empowering local communities throughout the policymaking process.
Yet the Convention’s work is now a race against the clock as the 12-pt agreement’s nine-month deadline draws near. The Convention has only six months left to write a new constitution (though they can ask Congress for a three-month extension).
Further complicating matters is Chile’s electoral calendar.
This November, voters will elect a new Congress and President (though the presidential race could result in a December run-off). Because Chile does not allow direct reelection, Piñera cannot run. His party’s candidate is political independent Sebastián Sichel, who has taken a hard line on punishing protestors but has supported more aid for the poor. To the right of Sichel is the Republican Party’s candidate José Antonio Kast, an open admirer of the Pinochet dictatorship. A presidential victory for Sichel or Kast could signal that voters’ appetite for change has diminished, perhaps tempering the Convention’s reformist impulses.
More practically, a victorious rightwing could continue starving the Convention of resources, slowing its work even further. Bassa’s recent announcement that the Convention would begin drafting text by early October—well before the elections—is an attempt to allay broader fears that time is running out.
It’s unclear how this process ends. The Left has electoral mandates and momentum, and a slight edge in recent presidential polls. They remain invested in carrying forth many Chileans’ visions of change. For them, the time for appeasing the Right has passed, and the moment for unraveling legacies of economic and social exclusion, xenophobia, racism, patriarchy, and political violence has arrived.
Whether they succeed in their mission to remake the Chilean polity remains unknown.
Jennifer M. Piscopo is an Associate Professor of Politics at Occidental College, where she also directs the Center for Research and Scholarship. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Review, The Smithsonian, and Ms. Magazine, among other outlets.