How Chile’s Constitutional Overhaul Emboldened the Right

Even if the new constitution is adopted, Chile’s anti-democratic right wing is here to stay.

By , an associate professor of politics and director of the Center for Research and Scholarship at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and , a professor in the department of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University.
People hold up signs and protest.
People hold up signs and protest.
People protest in rejection of Chile’s new constitution being drafted by the Constitutional Convention in Santiago on April 30. Martin Bernetti/AFP via Getty Images

After three years of upheaval, Chile is at a crossroads. On May 14, delegates stopped writing—and began revising—a draft of what may be the world’s most progressive constitution. The Constitutional Convention, formed after social movements swept the country in 2019, will deliver a new draft charter on July 4, with far-reaching rights for Indigenous people, women, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, the environment, and even animals.

The document delivers on reformers’ vision for a new Chile, but the progressive content and often chaotic process have fueled anxieties on the right. A minority in the convention, right-wing groups have struggled to influence the drafting process, resorting to tactics from the illiberal playbook: fearmongering, spreading disinformation, and demonizing the opposition.

The current moment shows that while using constitution-writing to give democracy a reboot generates new political possibilities, it can also embolden powerful opponents. Whether voters adopt or reject the constitution in the Sept. 4 referendum, an anti-democratic right wing in Chile is here to stay.

After three years of upheaval, Chile is at a crossroads. On May 14, delegates stopped writing—and began revising—a draft of what may be the world’s most progressive constitution. The Constitutional Convention, formed after social movements swept the country in 2019, will deliver a new draft charter on July 4, with far-reaching rights for Indigenous people, women, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, the environment, and even animals.

The document delivers on reformers’ vision for a new Chile, but the progressive content and often chaotic process have fueled anxieties on the right. A minority in the convention, right-wing groups have struggled to influence the drafting process, resorting to tactics from the illiberal playbook: fearmongering, spreading disinformation, and demonizing the opposition.

The current moment shows that while using constitution-writing to give democracy a reboot generates new political possibilities, it can also embolden powerful opponents. Whether voters adopt or reject the constitution in the Sept. 4 referendum, an anti-democratic right wing in Chile is here to stay.


In 2019, Chile’s right looked on in horror as protests led by workers, students, pensioners, feminists, Indigenous people, and other progressives paralyzed the country for weeks. Frustrated by limited socioeconomic mobility, unresponsive democratic institutions, and an out-of-touch political class, activists torched metro stations, tore down statutes of Spanish colonizers, and demanded a more equal society. The right dismissed protesters’ concerns and denounced the disorder and destruction.

Activists remained in the streets despite a brutal police response. They traced many of Chile’s problems to one source: the current constitution, ratified in 1980 during Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. The estallido social—or “social explosion,” as the protests are called—culminated with the 12-point Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution. Signed by party leaders across the ideological spectrum, the agreement outlined steps for writing a new charter.

The process has sent Chileans to the polls twice. First, they voted on whether to convene a constitutional convention and what form it should take. In October 2020, 78 percent voted for a new constitution written entirely by citizen delegates. (Only five of the country’s 346 districts voted against it, including Santiago’s three wealthiest municipalities.) Second, they selected the delegates. In May 2021, Chileans elected political newcomers, independents, and social movement activists to fill the 155-member Constitutional Convention. Both votes constituted an overwhelming defeat of the political class that had governed the country since democracy’s return in 1990.

Chileans chose individuals outside the usual parties—left and right alike—to write the new constitution. Eighty-seven percent of delegates have never held elected office before. Two-thirds are independents, and many represent parties formed within the past six years, as voters sought new alternatives. At the time of the delegate elections last May, the traditional right-wing parties—the Independent Democratic Union (UDI) and National Renewal—held the presidency and 46 percent of seats in the lower house. Yet they won just 21 percent of the convention, a mere 32 seats.

The delegates also represent groups that historically have lacked political power. Thanks to a gender parity provision, women secured half the seats (compared with 23 percent in the lower house). Indigenous people were guaranteed 17 seats, elected via special lists by members of Chile’s 10 First Nations. Mapuche leader, activist, and linguist Elisa Loncón served as the convention’s first president.

The right exploits the convention’s quickfire deliberations and rapid pace to undermine its legitimacy.

The convention’s few but vocal opponents painted a doomsday scenario from the start. Conservative columnist Arturo Cifuentes called the October 2020 vote a “coup” and said Chile “was jumping into the unknown without a parachute. … We’ll end up somewhere between Argentina and Venezuela.” The Wall Street Journal’s Latin America correspondent Mary Anastasia O’Grady declared that Chile was “on the cusp of collective political and economic suicide” and that any new constitution would represent a “surrender to left-wing terrorists.”

Now, the right exploits the convention’s quickfire deliberations and rapid pace to undermine its legitimacy. The right paints the convention as tyrannical and out of control, claiming that the left prefers activism and extremism over dialogue and consensus. UDI delegates have described the intense work as a “pressure cooker trying to force a brutally excessive document” and derided the convention for “making a fool of itself, a true circus.”

The process has indeed been fast and at times confusing. Producing a new constitution was always going to be a daunting task. The 12-point agreement gave the convention one year to write a draft charter and imposed a two-thirds supermajority on all draft text. Former Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, a right-wing billionaire, created even more barriers. He withheld funding for policy advisors and technical staff, leaving delegates to operate on a shoestring budget and at a breakneck pace.

Delegates invented the convention’s procedures from scratch. They created a citizen initiative process, considering any proposal signed by 15,000 Chileans and received by a certain date. They organized themselves into committees, which receive and vote on citizens’ or delegates’ proposals. Items advance to the plenary with a majority vote. There, proposals with a majority but less than two-thirds support revert to committee. Amended versions return to the plenary for a second and final vote.

This means that delegates largely rely on committee and plenary votes to hammer out agreements. In most deliberative assemblies, negotiation takes place behind closed doors, where advisors test the waters for certain ideas and party leaders negotiate in advance. But Chile’s convention considers dozens of items a day, without the staff or time to broker backroom deals. A single plenary session can last nine or 10 hours, with delegates voting on everything from the new congress’s structure to the special recognition of artisans.

The convention calls its approach “democracy in real time.” It is participatory and transparent, an experiment in grassroots, deliberative democracy. Every idea—no matter how untried or unrealistic—is aired publicly and streamed on YouTube. Newspapers and civil society organizations offer constant updates, but it’s hard to keep up. Some outlets rely on artificial intelligence, such as the Open Society Foundations-funded LaBot Constituyente, which tweets every vote as it happens.

Left-wing delegate Patricio Fernández conceded, “It’s hard to tell the wheat from the chaff,” citing confusion over which ideas are half-baked notions discussed in committee and which are solid proposals with plenary support.

Still, the delegates have managed to craft a draft charter that not only envisions a more just, inclusive, and sustainable Chile but also realizes the worst fears of right-wing political and economic elites.

In a country where the right regards property rights as sacrosanct and even water is privatized, the draft charter elevates environmental protection. Articles stipulate that nature has rights and that whoever harms the environment owes reparations. They give unions the right to participate in businesses’ decision-making and enumerate universal social rights. These include public pensions, health care, housing, employment, food, digital connectivity, education, and clean water.

The document expressly empowers marginalized groups. It defines Chile as a plurinational and intercultural country composed of diverse nations. Indigenous people receive language and land rights, including restitution for stolen territories. Domestic workers, people with disabilities, and transgender individuals enjoy specific rights and protections. The new congress reserves seats for Afro-descendants.

A reformed justice system mandates judging all cases from a perspective that takes gender inequities into account. All elected and appointed offices, from the executive branch to semipublic corporations, must have gender parity. Articles 16 and 17 guarantee the right to comprehensive sex education and voluntary termination of pregnancy, going well beyond the 2017 legalization of abortion in cases of rape, danger to the mother’s life, or fetal nonviability.

Right-wing critics and even some moderates fear the new constitution would abolish private property and nationalize key sectors of the economy. These outcomes are technically possible but practically unlikely—after all, the plenary explicitly rejected state ownership of the mining sector. Still, the president of Chile’s Chamber of Commerce warned that businesses would start to cease operations if they could not have “peace of mind” that their investments would be secure.

Others worry that the new social rights would create funding mandates that threaten Chile’s economic growth. Political scientist Patricio Navia fretted that the new constitution is “more concerned with redistribution than with generating wealth” and will be a “straitjacket that hinders development.” In a well-known economic blog, one conservative lawyer lamented, “We will pay for this with our taxes. … We will be more equal but poorer.”


Yet the constitution’s opponents are not just contesting policy ideas. Unable to influence the convention from the inside, right-wing groups are adopting tactics used by illiberal populists worldwide.

One is fearmongering via disinformation. Thousands of Twitter accounts circulate false claims about the convention’s decisions, which right-wing journalists, party leaders, and convention delegates retweet and amplify. Fifty-eight percent of Chileans surveyed reported exposure to misinformation in early 2022, including false claims that the new constitution would change Chile’s flag and national anthem. Other social media accounts circulate talking points shared by anti-LGBTQ and anti-feminist movements across the globe, including claims that sex education violates parental rights and teaches children to enjoy pornography and be gay.

Another tactic is demonizing the opposition. Delegates—especially women and Indigenous people like Loncón—are insulted and harassed online, part of a systematic “digital war” waged by supporters of Chile’s ultra-conservative Republican Party. Opponents accuse delegates of creating an “Indigenous monarchy.” This racist othering reinforces the right’s insistence that the convention is destroying so-called traditional Chilean values.

Yet another is delegitimizing institutions. Right-wing delegates openly scorn the convention, even introducing proposals that they later reject in the plenary just to jam the gears.

The tactics, relatively new to the Chilean right, appear to be working. Take Chile’s presidential race that began in October 2021, at the convention’s four-month mark. Pinochet admirer and Republican Party founder José Antonio Kast, initially viewed as a long-shot candidate, won the first round by campaigning against the convention. Like Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and former U.S. President Donald Trump, Kast derided immigrants, feminists, and the left and championed law and order. His supporters circulated disinformation and doctored photos that painted his opponent in the December 2021 runoff—former student movement leader and progressive congressman Gabriel Boric—as a communist.

Kast received 44 percent of the second-round vote—not enough to defeat Boric but enough to demonstrate illiberalism’s appeal. Boric’s presidential victory marked another win for reformers, but the fate of the new constitution remains in doubt.

The convention is not quite finished. Voting on new items ceased on May 14, and a 40-member harmonization committee is now reviewing the 499 articles approved. The committee, which is charged with sending the plenary a more streamlined document, can tidy and clarify but cannot alter the document’s substance.

With the content locked in, the document constitutes a victory for reformers. The transparent, deliberative process, led by newcomers and outsiders, offers a blueprint for using constitution-writing to generate political renewal.

But the question is whether voters will accept this much change. A plurality of voters—46 percent—currently favor “reject.” Twenty-seven percent say “accept.” The rest are undecided, and they carry Chile’s fate in their hands. Voting is obligatory, and the document needs only a simple majority to succeed. Perhaps a more streamlined document, with the messy process in the rearview mirror, could sway them toward accepting it.

If voters ultimately choose “reject,” the dictatorship-era constitution will remain in force, along with the democratic deficits stemming from the country’s authoritarian past. Fearmongering will deliver a victory to those who prefer that status quo.

If voters choose “accept,” the outcome will reinforce the right’s minority status. They could become even more aggrieved, increasing their reliance on scorched-earth tactics that demonize progressives and cast left-right battles in nihilistic terms.

Regardless, Chile’s historic experiment in inclusive and transparent transformation will simultaneously fuel the same resentment animating illiberal movements across the globe.

Jennifer M. Piscopo is an associate professor of politics and director of the Center for Research and Scholarship at Occidental College in Los Angeles. She has published extensively in academic and popular outlets on gender, elections, and political representation in Latin America and across the globe. Twitter: @jennpiscopo

Peter M. Siavelis is a professor in the department of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University. He has published widely on Latin American and Chilean politics, including candidate selection, election systems, presidencies, and informal institutions.

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