Chile: Finding a Path to a New Social Pact

By Pablo Rubio Apiolaza*

Chileans demand constitutional reform/ Jose Pereira/ Public Domain/ Creative Commons License

Chile’s constitutional plebiscite on October 25 has calmed the aftershocks of the political earthquake that began with social protests one year earlier, and optimism is currently high that the two-year process of drafting and approving a new Constitution will help the country establish a much-needed new social pact.

  • The October 2019 demonstrations and the government’s response – including violence perpetrated by both sides – were a shock to Chilean society. The Carabineros were found to have committed serious human rights violations. A political negotiation between the government and opposition signed the following month included an agreement to hold a national referendum on the country’s Constitution, which has remained in force since 1980, when Gen. Augusto Pinochet ruled the country.
  • That accord and the COVID‑19 pandemic that hit Chile several months later diminished the social protests. The plebiscite originally was to take place in April, but was delayed, initially without contention, due to coronavirus. Nevertheless, in the campaign in the runup to the vote, social conflict flared up between the supporters of changing the Constitution (Apruebo) and those who wish to preserve it (Rechazo). Clashes between protesters and Carabineros ensued. The violence has little support among Chileans, however. According to a mid-October survey by Plaza Pública Cadem, a Chilean polling firm, around 73 percent “reject the violence in the protest,” and only 25 percent think “violence is legitimate for achieving social change.”

The October referendum provides an institutional framework and legitimizes mechanisms for resolving the social conflict or at least reduce it. The overwhelming margins of the vote eliminated challenges. According to official results, Apruebo won 78.2 percent, with landslides in all 16 regions of the country, even in conservative and right-wing areas like La Araucanía in the south. Overall, Apruebo won in 341 of the 346 comunas of the country.

  • The vote also showed Chilean people support an elected “Constitutional Convention” (79 percent in favor) to draw up a new Constitution, rather than a “mixed” convention with current members of Congress comprising half its delegates. The convention will have 155 members, with equal amounts of men and women, elected by popular ballot next April.
  • While only 50 percent of eligible voters turned out for the referendum, there is no doubt that the results reflect the preferences of the population. The most votes in Chilean political history were cast, with 7.5 million electors. According to an exit poll by Plaza Pública Cadem, 85 percent of young voters supported Apruebo. In the same poll, supporters said their primary reason was to “guarantee fundamental social rights like health, education and pensions.”
  • Congress is discussing some changes to the Convention scheme approved by the plebiscite, such as assigning a number of “reserved seats” to indigenous, who the last census determined to be 12.8 percent of the Chilean population. There apparently is a consensus to move this reform forward.

The referendum has dealt a peaceful but grievous blow to the legacy of Pinochet 30 years after he left office, and opens the way for Chile to achieve a new social pact. The plebiscite has helped reduce protests and violence in the short term, and it represents the beginning of a long process ushering in a new era for Chile. Between now and the 2022 scheduled date for another referendum on the text of the new Constitution, the country will have to elect delegates, in April, whose work will include between nine and 12 months of debate and negotiation.

  • Meanwhile, President Sebastián Piñera, who steps down in March 2022, has to grapple with the immediate needs and social demands resulting from the pandemic and Chile’s other challenges. He remained neutral in the referendum, but his administration has been seriously weakened by the protests and their aftermath; his support in the polls is about 18 percent. He is trying to reform the Carabineros, pressing it to improve its human rights record and accept greater civilian and democratic control, and he recently replaced the senior commander and the Minister of Home Affairs, but reform implies a radical change in the force’s institutional culture.

November 11, 2020

* Pablo Rubio Apiolaza is a Chilean historian and researcher at the Library of Chilean Congress. Until recently, he was Visiting Researcher at Georgetown University.

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