Chile: Will the Constitutional Assembly Move Democracy Forward?

By Patricio Navia*

Polling place in Chile/ Atina Chile Elecciones 2005/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Chileans go to the polls this weekend to elect members of a constitutional assembly – empowered to write a new Constitution by a plebiscite last October – but unrealistic popular expectations in a highly political year appear likely to complicate its work and could result in a flawed document.

  • Almost 80 percent of the Chileans who voted last October (i.e., 80 percent of half of the country’s eligible voters) supported a rewrite of the Pinochet-era Constitution, promulgated in 1980. Voters also chose to elect a new 155-member assembly for the task, rather than form one from among prominent political and social leaders. The assembly will have nine months to draft the document (with an option for one three-month extension), which will be voted on in mid-2022.
  • Chile’s busy election calendar is likely to complicate the assembly’s work. Saturday and Sunday’s voting will also choose governors, mayors, and city councilors, and there are elections in November for Congress and a new President – threatening to create tensions and a perfect political storm that undermine the quality of the new magna carta. Some parties have already held internal primaries for their presidential candidates, and coalition primaries are scheduled for July 18. If no candidate receives at least 50 percent plus one of the votes in the first round of voting on November 21, the two leading candidates will compete in a runoff on December 19.

The flaws of the constitutional process itself are clear. One is that the guaranteed gender-parity condition (50 percent representation for men and 50 percent for women) risks a situation in which higher vote-getters are not seated. The assembly’s mandate also includes guaranteed representation for the indigenous – a noble goal that nonetheless could lead to distracting recriminations in a convention that, per the plebiscite, will require approval by two-thirds of delegates for every element of the new Constitution. The objective is to achieve what Chilean authorities have called “a high degree of consensus” but could actually put agreement out of reach.

  • In addition, the assembly will begin deliberations in late June, when the Presidential and Legislative campaigns will be underway. The new government will take office in March 2022, but the new Constitution will not be ready until the second half of 2022 – and ratified by an exit plebiscite even later. The new government will have to wait for over six months after its inauguration for the new Constitution to be finalized before it can begin to govern, and, even worse, the offices of those elected might not exist.
  • Another major challenge is disunity and, in some cases, a lack of vision in the traditional political parties. Parties of the right, which finally got out from under the shadows of the Pinochet dictatorship and problematic market reforms, now appear ill-prepared to lead as Chile enters a transition period. Despite two terms in office (2010‑14 and 2018‑22), President Piñera has not constructed a new model for the right in Chile and now, having lost much momentum, is unable to lead rightist parties sorely lacking leadership.
  • Polls indicate, however, that Chileans do not embrace the more state-oriented options espoused by the left. Citizens want robust social rights and a reliable social safety net – which the assembly will find easy to give them without having to identify funding sources – but studies show they strongly prefer a society based on competitive markets with the protections they get as consumers, preventing abuses and guaranteeing individual rights. The right has been unable to capitalize on these views and, ironically, has never been in such a position of weakness as it is now. When Chileans realize that the many promises of the Constitution cannot be materialized, they will feel cheated.

The plebiscite creating the constitutional assembly increasingly appears to have been an effort to exorcise the Pinochet government that wrote the 1980 Constitution – rather than a mandate for a new left-leaning model of governance. Neither will the new magna carta be a magic pill that will solve all of Chile’s problems, including inequality and deficient public health and private pension systems, as many voters undoubtedly wish. These unfulfillable expectations will weigh heavily on the assembly throughout this political year.

  • Failure of the assembly is not a foregone conclusion, of course. Even after we analyze the results of this weekend’s votes, we cannot rule out that the political parties and civil society might rise to the occasion of making the debate and drafting into a healing process. If President Piñera commits all his energy to leading his government and party until he steps down 10 months from now – a historic but difficult task for a lame duck with a checkered legacy – one challenge will be the balancing act between promoting his base’s agenda and reassuring others that their interests will be respected and included. For now, however, it’s hard not to conclude that Chileans underestimated the complexities that writing a new Constitution would entail, especially producing one that meets the high expectations of a people hungry for solutions.

May 14, 2021

* Patricio Navia is a sociologist and political scientist at New York University and professor of political science at Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago.

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1 Comment

  1. Gabriel Marcella

     /  May 14, 2021

    The document most likely to be drafted by the Constitutional Assembly seems to be high on idealism and low on pragmatism. This is an excellent opportunity to analyze the utopian quality and highly detailed constitutions of Latin America, which aspire to achieve remarkable happiness for all, irrespective of the capacity to deliver the goods promised.

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