When in 2019, protests following proposed rises in subway fairs escalated into a broader movement about the country’s constitution, Chile began its long and complicated path towards changing its political system. In 2020, with a voter turnout of almost 50%, Chileans voted overwhelmingly in favour of a new constitution to be drafted by a constituent assembly composed of 50% men and 50% women, with the indigenous population of Chile also having a seat at the table.
In 2021 42% of Chileans voted for the constituents that would be drafting their new constitution, the results of which overwhelmingly favoured left-leaning and independent candidates – a strong contrast to Chile’s previously right leaning politics. After a 10-month-long deliberative process, the initial draft was introduced to the public on May 13thincluding, amongst other things, a restructuring of the nations governing institutions, new rights concerning gender equality, an extensive environmental policy, and the recognition of Chile’s multinational character. A few weeks until the referendum on this new constitution and both ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ campaigns were in full swing, polls as early as April have been showing a growing discontentment with the new constitution.
We sat down with Professor David Altman of the Instituto de Ciencia Política (Institute of Political Science) and Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (Pontifical Catholic University of Chile) to discuss why polls show voters are likely to reject this new constitution.
Altman points out that despite both the 2020 and 2021 votes being largely dominated by left-leaning pro-new constitution constituents, these may not be an accurate representation of Chileans as a whole. “(…) the plebiscite and the election of the new convention represents about 40% of the electorate. So this huge ‘landslide victory’ as many people say – we have to take it with some consideration”. The 2022 plebiscite to ratify the proposed constitution will comparatively attract a far larger and more politically diverse voter base.
In addition to the somewhat misleading statistics of the first two votes, the new constitution itself has its fair share of flaws which concern Chileans. When asked to comment on the major flaws of the constitution, Altman commented “Perfection is always the enemy of the good. This draft, I would say, is maximalist in many, many fronts simultaneously”.
Indeed, Chiles new proposed constitution is ambitious in many facets, centring around social and political rights of historically marginalized groups such as women, the indigenous population, and the disabled, while also guaranteeing the universal right towards housing, health, education, water, and free speech. While the old constitution also had provisions regarding such matters, the new constitution takes things one step further in terms of the specificity of matters. For example, while the old constitution prohibited gender-based discrimination, the proposed constitution calls for gender parity in all government branches and public entities – meaning that if the new constitution were to pass, the statistical makeup of these institutions would have to be 50% men, 50% women. While some of the criticism levelled against such a measure has undoubtedly been sexist in nature, Altman points out that while “(..) this welfare net of protection that they are trying to create advances years and years of stagnation of social rights – the question is whether this should be in the constitution or not. (…) If you compare this draft with many constitutions that exist in Europe its extremely expansive. Many European constitutions aren’t so specific – that’s a matter for regular law.”
However, while in some regards the new Chilean constitution is very specific, it is seemingly lacking on other vital areas. Altman highlights, that despite its maximalist nature, the constitution fails to address some of Chiles most urgent issues. “The constitution all together is a little problematic from the perspective of many people. For instance, with the new draft of the constitution the President could not declare an emergency state at any level unless the emergency is a geographical catastrophe or something like that. But now Chile has two exceptional states of emergency – in the north due to crime and illegal immigration, and in the south because of ethnic violence. So, in case this constitution is approved, there is a huge question mark as to what could happen in September 5th when the President can’t declare anything like that – there is no possibility, in the constitution that they draw, to declare an exceptional state to control violence for instance. So what’s going to happen? No one knows”. It would appear that the constitution fails to address hot topic issues in Chile right now which makes many voters wary as to the immediate consequences of the new constitution. The constitution is idealistic in the sense that many of its goals, such as universally free housing, would take years to achieve – even if they are technically plausible and could potentially benefit people greatly in the long-run. The result is a constitution which appears contradictory in its very nature; simultaneously bloated while missing crucial details, progressive and ambitious whilst failing to meaningfully address topics such as crime and immigration which are at the top of many Chilean voters list of concerns.
Altman theorizes that many of the problems inherent within the new constitution have arisen due to the drafting process itself which was performed in large part by independents with no political party. “A significant portion of the convention constituents were not constraint by bargaining traditions. When you have to bargain, you have to give something up, and these guys were monothematic about one particular section of the convention”. Indeed, an unusually high amount of the constituents elected to draft the convention were individuals normally involved in partitioning for a relatively small community or group with a specific set of interests, which may have led to the abnormal level of specificity in regards to social and human rights we see in the constitutional draft. Drafting a constitution is a massive and difficult undertaking, regardless of who is involved in the process, however the large number of convention constituents who are independent with no political party may have invertedly created problems with coordination and negotiation.
However, despite polls showcasing dissatisfaction with the current state of the new constitution, this does not mean that Chileans want to keep the old constitution. As it was drawn by a regime under a military dictatorship that was never ratified democratically by Chileans, even those that oppose the new constitution call for major reforms of the old regime. “We are immersed in a very interesting scenario where all sides are requesting for changes in the proposal. The people of the ‘approval’ camp say ‘give me your vote and we change this draft’, and the people of the ‘reject’ camp, they say ‘give me your vote and we will change the current constitution’”. comments Altman. Even if only 50% of Chileans voted in the 2020 plebiscite, this means that 40% of all Chileans voted for a new constitution which is a statistic that is hard to ignore. “I think the signal and the response that Chileans provide to the plebiscite of 2020 is clear enough, and I think that most parliamentarians agree that something must change. In what direction this will proceed, I don’t know. But would say it is virtually impossible that we will get stuck with the current constitution as it is now”, says Altman though his words are steeped in caution. In such politically tumultuous times, with tensions running higher and higher as the plebiscite approaches, regardless of the outcome – Chile is likely in for a long and arduous journey in the process of reforming its political system.