An expert's point of view on a current event.

Chile’s Constitution Is Too New for Its Own Good

The path is clear for a social democratic revision of its political system—and for a severe backlash.

By , an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.
A Chilean holds a flag from the Comunist Party of Chile to celebrate victory after the end Constitutional Convention Elections weekend on May 16 in Santiago, Chile.
A Chilean holds a flag from the Comunist Party of Chile to celebrate victory after the end Constitutional Convention Elections weekend on May 16 in Santiago, Chile. Marcelo Hernandez/Getty Images

The news for establishment politics in Chile just went from bad to worse. The results from this past weekend’s election to choose delegates for a new constitutional assembly were a shock to the government: It failed to gain the one-third of total seats needed to block proposals for the new constitution. For all intents and purposes, Chile is now set to rebuild its democracy from the ground up. The country could build a model of social democracy for the region, but the process also has real risks.

It marks a radical departure from recent decades. The country’s current constitution was written during the military rule of Augusto Pinochet in 1980. As with authoritarian constitutions in many countries, it outlasted Pinochet’s fall and Chile’s transition to democracy.

Many view Pinochet’s constitution as the original sin to Chilean democracy. The constitution protected the military and its authoritarian allies during the democratic transition; it gave Senate seats to top military figures, gave the military the authority to choose the head of the armed forces, and directed 10 percent of the country’s enormous copper revenues into the military budget; it banned extreme left parties and created an electoral system that overrepresented conservative parties; and it provided amnesties to Pinochet and other generals. And in spite of a series of progressive reforms in the 2000s, it is still widely viewed to favor conservative elites, business, and the military.

The most significant challenge yet to the elite-biased vestiges of the authoritarian past arose in late 2019. A series of protests rocked the government and forced Chile’s conservative billionaire president, Sebastián Piñera, to concede to a referendum on whether to draft a new constitution. The referendum vote was a lopsided win for reformers: 78 percent of voters approved moving forward with drafting a new constitution, and, critically, 79 percent of voters opted for convoking a constituent assembly to write a new constitution rather than to have the National Congress do it.

Last weekend’s election was the final nail in the coffin for the establishment. The right-leaning coalition, Chile Vamos, backed by Piñera, won only 37 of the 155 seats for the constitutional convention. Independents and the new left, who seek to fundamentally restructure the distribution of power in Chilean society, emerged as winners. Independents—many of them linked to the protest movement—won 48 seats. A new-left coalition, Apruebo Dignidad, also fared well with 28 seats. The center-left won 25 seats.

Independents and the left combined will hold more than two-thirds of seats in the constituent assembly. This places them in the driver’s seat for shaping Chile’s new constitution. The government’s coalition does not have the votes to wield a veto over the final outcome. That means that the constitution could turn out far more progressive than the government had ever anticipated.

My research shows that democracies that shed authoritarian-era constitutions and forge new ones usually take a progressive turn in the road. Pluralism, inclusiveness, and egalitarianism blossom. Fiscal and monetary policies shift in favor of popular sectors over elites. This enhances the welfare of regular people. And that is a key demand of protesters, given that inequality in Chile is sky-high and that it shapes the lives of many of its citizens.

All eyes in Latin America will be on Chile to see whether it can craft a new, more inclusive social democratic charter that can tackle inequality without sacrificing Chile’s incredible economic growth. There is strong pressure for gender equity, greater recognition of rights for Indigenous groups like the Mapuche, pension and education reform, more avenues for civic participation, enhanced environmental protections, and police reform. As the chief protest slogan “Dignity” makes clear, people want a more responsive and inclusive government that treats them with dignity, fairness, and respect.

Winning candidates from the left and the protest movement promised reforms to address these popular demands. They advocated for issues like gender parity in political representation, enhanced reproductive rights, recognition of plurinationalism, strengthened land rights for Indigenous groups, free public education, improved health care access and quality medical care, and greater oversight over police conduct.

Chile has many of the background conditions to implement these reforms. Its population on the whole is well educated, informed, and engaged. The country has a robust business sector, a track record of competent fiscal management, and considerable natural resources. Implementing reforms that increase the health and happiness of its citizens while including marginalized citizens and groups to a greater degree holds the promise of stimulating broad-based growth while narrowing inequality.

But the process has risks. New constitutions forged in the last two decades in neighbors like Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela demonstrate that populist and nationalist impulses can win out. Without a check on their power, elements within the left may be tempted to try to use the new constitution to vanquish their political foes once and for all by biasing electoral rules in their favor or hobbling political bodies that serve to foster deliberation and due legal process.

Take Venezuela, which is now used as a cautionary tale throughout the region. Its new constitution in 1999 and subsequent revisions in the 2000s eliminated the Senate, weakened the independence of the judiciary and electoral commission, and provided a road map to supplant a duly elected legislature. Hugo Chávez helped craft these changes and then exploited them to aggrandize his power. This set the stage for Venezuela’s subsequent spectacular economic collapse and slide into authoritarianism.

Political overreach could take Chile on the path to political radicalism. That would in turn scare away business investment and shatter Chile’s reputation as business-friendly. It could also catalyze protests and pushback from the right. There is a considerable contingent of the population that still looks fondly on the dictatorship. And the military and police could view radical reforms to their institutions as existential threats.

Either way, Chile is now set for its biggest political change since the transition to democracy. Discontented citizens in nearby countries seething with instability, most notably Colombia and Peru, will be carefully watching the outcome.

Michael Albertus is an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is author, most recently, of Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy.