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In late 2019, more than a million Chileans took to the streets in peaceful protest while a violent minority set fire to businesses and subway stations. Conventional wisdom held that the unrest was driven by high prices, low wages, and rising income inequality. To many, that interpretation was confirmed last December when a 35-year-old candidate of the far left, Gabriel Boric, won the presidency by a healthy margin, succeeding the conservative Sebastián Piñera. But the story of Chile’s political upheaval in recent years is far more complex, as revealed earlier this month when an overwhelming majority of Chileans voted to reject a new constitution drafted by a left-leaning constitutional assembly and backed by Boric.
Chile’s current constitution was inked in 1980, during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Even though it has been amended more than 70 times since, it remains unpopular: in 2020, nearly 80 percent of voters cast ballots in support of rewriting it. The new charter, supposed to secure gender equality, guarantee the rights of indigenous peoples, strengthen environmental protection, and address income inequality, was championed by Hollywood celebrities and by a group of intellectuals that included the economists Thomas Piketty and Mariana Mazzucato, who hailed it in an open letter as a “visionary product” that would “set a new global standard.”
Chileans disagreed: 86 percent of eligible voters showed up and, by a margin of nearly two to one, rejected the convention’s vision of a new Chile. Those voting “no” prevailed in every one of Chile’s 16 regions and in 338 of the country’s 346 municipalities. It was a crushing blow for Boric, who had hitched his government’s success to that of the proposed constitution. Right after the vote, his approval rating dropped to 33 percent—a paltry figure for an administration that took over barely six months ago.
The 2019 unrest was triggered in part by a 30-peso increase in bus fares. Protesters chanted, “It’s not 30 pesos, but 30 years,” alluding to the three decades during which mostly center-left governments kept the country on a course of gradual reform. Local and international observers took that to be a wholesale rejection by citizens of the Chilean experiment with democratic capitalism. But as the referendum result demonstrates, that interpretation was incorrect.
Young people were angered by what they saw as a dearth of economic opportunity, and many felt that the Chilean political establishment had become closed and ossified. Social and cultural issues were at play, too: young adults from working-class families were now reaching college but facing discrimination and glass ceilings in the labor market. But ultimately, Chileans wanted to fix capitalism, not overthrow it.
The proposed constitution was potentially disastrous, and voters were right to reject it. This result is good news for Chile and could even be good news for the Boric administration, if the president comes to accept one key message voters were sending: they want a new constitution, but they do not wish to repeat the mistakes of the failed process that produced the one he backed.
Chile, like much of Latin America, is indeed very unequal. In 2020, its Gini coefficient—economists´ preferred measure of income disparity—was 44.9 out of 100, higher than for most of the country’s upper-middle-income peers. Yet until the pandemic, Chile’s Gini coefficient had been falling: according to the World Bank, it was 46.6 in 2017, 49.0 in 2009, and an eye-popping 57.2 when the country returned to democracy in 1990. Thus, rising income inequality could not be the driver of rising citizen discontent in 2019.
Another plausible but erroneous explanation is that protests began because Chileans were fed up with the intrusion of markets and profit-seeking into every corner of daily life. Polls showed widespread dissatisfaction with private companies that provide public services ranging from water, electricity, and toll roads to health insurance and pension-fund administration. Yet, those same surveys also showed anger about the quality of state-provided services, whether in hospitals or foster-care facilities. Over half of parents have long chosen to send children to privately run, voucher-financed schools, even when it involves paying a fee. None of this suggests a nation with a wired-in aversion to markets.
So why did so many Chileans take to the streets in October 2019? Trends in education provide part of the answer. A generation ago, few working-class children attended universities. Today, seven out of 10 students in higher education come from families in which no one had ever gone to college before. This is great news, but with it comes an unexpected corollary. The increasing supply of professionals has lowered their relative wages, which makes income distribution more equal but frustrates the hopes of those who had believed that a college degree would guarantee a comfortable lifestyle. Add to that a mountain of student debt and the discrimination suffered by new graduates in a society where job offers often hinge on having the “right” surname or connections. The result is a generation that is wealthier and better educated than any in Chile’s history—but also frustrated and disillusioned.
Constitutional delegates wrote the wrong kind of text, in the wrong sort of way.
Pensions were another cause of anger. Chile’s privatized system of individual accounts receives kudos on Wall Street but has provided frustratingly low retirement incomes to the country’s baby boom generation. Over the last decade, street demonstrations calling for a change in the system were common. But as poll after poll showed, the last thing Chileans want is for the government to take away their savings and use them to finance a state-run system, which, given Chile´s rapidly aging population, would also pay low pensions once those initial funds ran out. In fact, the most popular petition to the constitutional convention, gathering over 100,000 signatures, demanded that the new charter ban any confiscation of private retirement savings.
As Carlos Peña, a political philosopher and Chile´s most influential columnist, told El País last year, “It is not true that Chileans want to radically change course and start anew.” Most protesters were knocking on the door of Chilean democracy to be allowed in, not to tear the whole edifice down. The 78 men and 77 women elected in May 2021 to write the new constitution never understood this. That is why they wrote the wrong kind of text, in the wrong sort of way.
The constitutional process engendered much hope, and the members of the constitutional convention—young, socially and ethnically diverse, with few connections to the country´s traditional political establishment—initially seemed to embody that hope. But the truth is that the convention was never very representative of the Chilean electorate. Because the May election took place while the pandemic was still raging, older voters stayed home and younger voters had an outsize influence. The electoral system used to choose the delegates gave independents an advantage over party candidates. It also created 17 reserved seats for members of indigenous minorities, a figure that was not proportional to the actual number of votes cast to fill those seats. The overall result was a body that was far to the left of the Chilean National Congress, elected just a few months later.
The behavior of many delegates oscillated between the unexpected and the embarrassing. At the inaugural ceremony, a group of them heckled those singing the national anthem, which they viewed as a symbol of oppression, to the surprise of most Chileans. Throughout the convention, the flag of the Mapuche people was often displayed, but not Chile’s national emblem. The leader of the most radical faction in the convention, whose story of personal struggle against cancer had moved voters, was revealed never to have suffered from the disease. When Socialist Party members voted against environmental provisions that would have halted private investment, “eco-conventioneers” chased them down the halls, calling them traitors. Unsurprisingly, by June, nearly 60 percent of voters were telling pollsters they had little or no trust in the convention.
The majority of constitutional delegates misunderstood the nature of their jobs. A constitution is a set of rules for the conduct of politics, not a partisan program for governing. Yet the convention produced a 162-page document that spelled out policy in areas ranging from health, education and housing to fruit-gathering, the management of “traditional seeds” and the “culinary and gastronomical heritage” of the country. Government was to have a big role in most, if not all, of these areas. In 1980, Pinochet and his lawyers saddled Chile with a right-wing constitution. In 2022, the convention tried to saddle Chile with a left-wing constitution. Different people, different decade, same mistake.
Because most delegates had little interest in the arcana of institutional design, the political architecture they produced was the most deficient aspect of the text. The electoral system—the all-important rules for electing members of Congress—was only mentioned once. Political parties were mentioned barely four times, three of them to spell out who could not belong to them. The presidency´s veto power would be limited and its exclusive right to initiate legislation involving expenditures or taxes (which has given Chile the strongest fiscal performance in Latin America) severely weakened. To make matters worse, the convention’s far left tried to abolish the Senate, and when it did not secure enough votes to accomplish that, it pared back its powers and renamed it the Chamber of Regions. Paradoxically for a text supposed to devolve power away from the capital, the body representing Chile´s regions would have been weak in comparison with an all-powerful “Congress” of Deputies.
In such a political system, ineffectual and prone to paralysis, the fundamental rights contained in the text would have remained—as so often in Latin American history—a catalogue of unfulfilled promises. It was the perfect recipe for voter frustration and disillusionment with democracy.
The political architecture was the most deficient aspect of the proposed constitution.
There was also a drastic disconnect between the agenda of most delegates and the concerns of middle-class voters. Focused on strengthening environmental protections, the conventioneers guaranteed “community management of the habitat” and established government organizations to guarantee “the rights of nature.” But in a country that is 90 percent urban and suffers from a chronic housing shortage, they failed to clarify whether residents could own their government-built units. And, despite the fierce debate over pensions, the text was fuzzy on whether old-age savings would be inheritable.
The parents of the millions of Chilean students who attend private voucher-financed schools worried that the new national system of education proposed by the draft constitution would not continue to provide funding to such schools. And countless farmers who depend on access to water were outraged to learn that their permanent and tradable water rights would become mere “authorizations” to use water that could be rescinded and could not be traded. Predictably, parents in middle-class districts and farmers came out in droves to vote “no” to the proposed constitution.
On matters of crime and safety, far-left delegates and mainstream voters were also far apart. Unlike some of its neighbors, Chile does not have sky-high murder rates, but crime and a perception of insecurity are on the rise. There is no doubt that police forces were brutal and heavy-handed in their attempts to control rioting in late 2019. But voters looking for a constructive response did not find it in the widespread graffiti featuring the English-language acronym ACAB (“all cops are bastards”) or in the emblem of the rioters, visible in T-shirts and flags: a black dog called Matapacos (cop-killer). The convention also spent its first few weeks trying to pressure Chile’s Congress into granting a blanket amnesty to people who not only had burned down private and public property in 2019 but in a few cases had also killed the people trapped inside.
There was a drastic disconnect between most delegates and middle-class voters.
The victims of violence in Chile, often poor and vulnerable, were not impressed. In municipalities whose households are in the bottom fifth of the Chilean income scale, 75 percent of voters rejected the proposed constitution. In municipalities with households in the top fifth, the comparable figure was only 60 percent.
The proposed constitution would have enshrined indigenous rights, a cause for celebration. But, as ever, the devil was in the details. Since the arrival of Europeans in the mid-sixteenth century in what is today Chile, discrimination against indigenous people has been endemic. Any new constitutional deal for Chile should have a strong bill of rights for ethnic minorities, who account for 12 percent of the population. The convention´s draft could have achieved that, but identity politics got in the way.
Delegates clashed over whether the label “plurinational” or “multicultural” best describes Chile—a debate that was incomprehensible to the vast majority of citizens. When the final text came out, the word “nation” was used to refer to Chile only twice, and 41 times to refer to indigenous peoples and groups. The proposal also created an unspecified number of “indigenous territorial autonomies” endowed with “political, administrative, and financial autonomy.” This constitution was supposed to provide Chile with a more muscular state, but it was hard to believe that with the country divided into many tiny units, each one would have the capacity and resources to deliver the improved public services citizens were clamoring for.
In Araucanía, the ancestral home of the Mapuche people, nearly three out of four voters came out against the proposed text. In many towns with large indigenous populations throughout southern Chile, 80 percent or more rejected it. It was not the result that Hollywood celebrities or progressive intellectuals abroad were anticipating.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, this is not the beginning of the end for a new Chilean constitution, but just the end of the beginning. Parties in Congress are now feverishly negotiating where the process will go from here. What is clear is that Chile will indeed have a new constitution. All parties except for the far-right Republicans agree on this for a simple reason: voters want a new text. A poll released three days after the referendum showed that barely nine percent of Chileans wish to stick to the current magna carta.
A new text will include protection for traditionally marginalized groups. Chile legalized gay marriage a year ago, and no politician is campaigning to change that. Several cabinets and, now, the convention assembly have been half men and half women; it is a safe bet that any future electoral system will replicate that achievement. Equal rights for indigenous people will also be part of any future constitution. Ratifying the convention´s proposed text was not required to preserve these gains.
A new convention will likely come into being but under very different rules. Politicians of all stripes are now reluctant to employ an electoral system for choosing delegates that favors independents, as Chile did two years ago, for fear of giving rise to a convention full of single-issue activists incapable of bargaining. Political parties may be unfashionable, but they are necessary for striking broad-based agreements. Asserting fundamental rights, and thereby underscoring the values a society holds dear, is a crucial function of constitutions. But if vowing to guarantee a dozen rights is a good idea, it does not follow that vowing to guarantee 240 of them is 20 times better. Ringing declarations are important, but the painstaking design of the political rules of the game to ensure that rights will be effectively guaranteed is even more important. Countries looking to jump-start change by writing new constitutions would do well to heed that lesson.
The wisest thing Boric can do now is let Congress take the next steps.
The landslide vote against the proposed draft was a blow and an opportunity for President Boric. It gave him the perfect excuse to reshuffle his cabinet, appointing two experienced left-of-center politicians to key ministerial posts. Since he fell short in the first-round presidential election in late 2021 and scrambled toward the center, Boric has shown the political instincts of a social democrat. The problem is that the senior partners of his coalition—the Communist Party and his own motley Frente Amplio—do not share those instincts, while the junior partners —the Socialist Party and an assortment of other moderate left groups—do. It is too early to conclude that Boric will shed the more radical elements of his administration and move decisively to the middle. But when it comes to writing a new constitution, the wisest thing he can do now is let Congress take the next steps.
Chile´s much-maligned politicians showed vision and talent in November 2019 when they found a way out of the violent street unrest—channeling energy away from stone-throwing and train-torching and toward constitutional debate was an act of political genius. The first attempt at writing a new constitution flopped, but, on a second try, Chileans will get it right.
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