Why Chileans Might Vote to Keep Their Dictatorship-Era Constitution

Whatever happens in Sunday’s referendum, the constitutional debate is far from over.

By , a lecturer in political science at Skidmore College and a doctoral candidate in politics at The New School, and , a doctoral candidate in politics at Princeton University.
Supporters of Chile’s proposed new constitution attend a closing campaign rally ahead of a Sept. 4 referendum in Santiago, Chile, on Sept. 1.
Supporters of Chile’s proposed new constitution attend a closing campaign rally ahead of a Sept. 4 referendum in Santiago, Chile, on Sept. 1.
Supporters of Chile’s proposed new constitution attend a closing campaign rally ahead of a Sept. 4 referendum in Santiago, Chile, on Sept. 1. MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP via Getty Images

In an October 2020 plebiscite, Chileans made a historic decision. They were ready to ditch their dictatorship-era constitution—or so we thought.

On Sept. 4, Chileans will vote to approve or reject a new draft constitution that has been written by an elected constitutional convention over the past year. Per the latest polls, “reject” holds a nearly 10-point lead over “approve,” although 17 percent of respondents remain undecided. Unlike other elections in Chile though, voting in this one is mandatory—making the vote a toss-up. Still, opinion trends point to a reversal from 2021, when the idea of replacing the constitution garnered widespread support from the Chilean public.

Many Chileans see the current constitution as a straitjacket on democracy. Written during the 1973 to 1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, it privatized most public services and limited state spending under the influence of the “Chicago Boys,” a group of University of Chicago-trained neoliberal Chilean economists who advised the dictatorship.

In an October 2020 plebiscite, Chileans made a historic decision. They were ready to ditch their dictatorship-era constitution—or so we thought.

On Sept. 4, Chileans will vote to approve or reject a new draft constitution that has been written by an elected constitutional convention over the past year. Per the latest polls, “reject” holds a nearly 10-point lead over “approve,” although 17 percent of respondents remain undecided. Unlike other elections in Chile though, voting in this one is mandatory—making the vote a toss-up. Still, opinion trends point to a reversal from 2021, when the idea of replacing the constitution garnered widespread support from the Chilean public.

Many Chileans see the current constitution as a straitjacket on democracy. Written during the 1973 to 1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, it privatized most public services and limited state spending under the influence of the “Chicago Boys,” a group of University of Chicago-trained neoliberal Chilean economists who advised the dictatorship.

After Chile’s 1990 return to democracy, center-left and center-right governments achieved high growth, economic stability, and big poverty reductions—but failed to tamp down rising income inequality and costs of living. Millions of financially burdened Chileans saw themselves growing increasingly distant from a privileged upper class and came to believe that until they got a new constitution, little would change.

Following unprecedented mass protests against inequality in 2019, calls to replace the constitution went mainstream. Chile’s National Congress put the idea of a rewrite up to a plebiscite, which passed with more than 78 percent support in October 2020. Even conservative then-President Sebastián Piñera, who dragged his feet on the referendum (and never revealed his own vote), said its result was “the beginning of a path that we must all walk together.”

But that path took some unexpected turns, and now, after nearly two years of anticipation, Chileans may end up right back where they started.


 

In May 2021, voters chose delegates for a constitutional convention that would draft the new charter. The convention’s makeup was a remarkable step toward diversity and inclusion, guaranteeing gender parity and a quota of 17 out of 155 seats for Indigenous people. By and large, Chileans opted for fresh-faced independents and leftists, many of them millennials, instead of the aging center-left and center-right politicians who had dominated the country’s politics for decades.

But the convention struggled to meet Chileans where they were—and are.

The May 2021 vote signaled Chileans wanted change, but the draft constitution published in July of this year is change to the extreme. It gives the state a fundamental role in regulating and guaranteeing the provision of goods and services in pivotal areas, such as health care, education, and housing. Chile’s patchy social safety net, however—at least in its current form—is unprepared to deliver on such a mandate, which means the state would need to substantially beef up existing agencies or even create new ones. The charter also dramatically expands rights. One article grants rights to nature. Another guarantees the “right to leisure.” The draft leaves open how exactly the state will guarantee some of these less conventional rights, but doing so will likely require increased fiscal spending, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill.

Structural change is a tough sales pitch given Chile’s current dire economic straits. Chile’s Central Bank reported a 74.5 percent uptick in capital outflow in the first trimester of 2022, and inflation has climbed to 13.1 percent. That latter number puts Chile third in the Americas behind infamously unstable Argentina and Venezuela—company Chileans probably never expected to find themselves in. In 2020, many Chileans might have been willing to take a chance on something new. But now, fewer people are willing to gamble on the country’s economic stability.

As time went on, the convention also divided Chileans more than it united them. For one, it was plagued by factionalism, especially between moderate and radical leftist groups, who feuded over how significantly they should change Chile’s existing legal framework. Some delegates publicly shamed others when their proposals were rejected, such as the suggested elimination of state mining concessions that make up the motor of Chile’s export economy. On top of that, it at times seemed the convention’s delegates weren’t up to the seriousness of their task. One convention vice president was caught lying about having cancer after winning a seat by claiming (falsely) that he had suffered mistreatment in Chile’s underequipped public hospitals. Another politician spewed insults against the convention and other delegates into a hot mic.

Although many of the delegates elected to the convention reflect the heated passions of the 2019 protest movement, they haven’t been nearly as capable of rallying Chileans behind a common project. With too many cooks in the kitchen—including some with knives at one another’s throats—it’s unsurprising that Chileans have soured on the process. Fifty-six percent of Chileans report that the proposed new constitution makes them “worry and fear.” In turn, only 39 percent state that it inspires “hope,” according to an August poll.


The draft constitution’s shift from easy victory to uphill battle has become an unexpected challenge for Chile’s new president, Gabriel Boric. In December 2021, the millennial leftist and former student activist defeated right-wing candidate and Pinochet apologist José Antonio Kast in a runoff where he actively campaigned for constitutional change. But since then, Chile’s mounting economic troubles and rising insecurity have put Boric in a lurch. His approval ratings have sunk to the mid-30s after reaching around 50 percent in March, when he was inaugurated.

In July, Boric said if “reject” prevails, voters should elect a new constitutional convention and restart the drafting process from scratch. But new plebiscites require congressional approval, which might not be forthcoming. Meanwhile, a Plan B has gained strength in Chile’s National Congress with the government’s implicit support: changing Pinochet’s constitution through a series of piecemeal amendments.

Whether “approve” or “reject” wins, Chile’s constitutional debate is far from over. But a victory for “reject” should not be read as a vote for the dictatorship-era charter. Most Chileans want a new constitution—but not necessarily the one offered to them by the convention. Indeed, a poll conducted in July showed that 74 percent of Chileans favored a new constitutional writing process even if “reject” wins on Sept. 4 and Pinochet’s constitution is upheld for now. Constitutional change is a lengthy process—and Chile’s may just be starting.

If the new draft is rejected, it won’t mark a defeat for Chile’s democracy. Never before have Chileans had the opportunity to so directly shape their own constitution. The Sept. 4 vote gives them that opportunity. And that, undoubtedly, is a win for democracy.

Lucas Perelló is a lecturer in political science at Skidmore College and a doctoral candidate in politics at The New School. Twitter: @lucas_perello

Will Freeman is a doctoral candidate in politics at Princeton University and 2022 Fulbright Hays grantee to Colombia, Peru, and Guatemala. Twitter: @WillGFreeman

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