Chile: Whither the Constitutional Process?

By Miguel Zlosilo and Carlos Cruz Infante*

Chile’s Constitutional Convention | Photo: Twitter/@ChileTodayNews

Chile’s Constitutional Convention appears headed toward a messy run to the goal line and, even if – as appears likely to be the default outcome – it is approved in the “exit” referendum, could produce a charter that fails to unify the country.

  • Born of a compromise to decompress tensions generated by social upheaval in October 2019, the proposal to rewrite the country’s Pinochet-era Constitution was ratified by 78 percent of Chileans in a referendum in 2020. In May 2021 the citizenry elected the Convention members charged with writing the new Carta Magna, favoring left-wing, independent, and reformist candidates. The center-right got only 24 percent of seats. Consequently, the Convention’s first general committee – elected by the representatives – had a clear desde cero (“from scratch”) character.
  • The results of Congressional elections last November, however, influenced convention members and some traditional center-left figures, such as socialist former President Ricardo Lagos Escobar, to address the centrist voter. In those elections, unlike in the May election for the Convention, the Senate went 50/50 for the left and right – demonstrating that the desde cero character of the Convention was no longer politically viable. Convention members then turned to more moderate and diligent persons to lead the general committee in recognition that regaining public support was crucial to keep the Convention going.

When the Convention started the voting sessions on provisions for the new Constitution in January, however, what appeared to be an adequate rudder change to the center ended when members initiated debate on the first proposals of the new Bill of Rights. Some proposed dissolving the current branches of Chile’s government – the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial – and replacing them with a Plurinational Assembly, resembling the Bolivian, Ecuadorian, and Venezuelan constitutional processes. The former Vice President of the Convention, Jaime Bassa, and President-elect Gabriel Boric discarded the idea. They both framed it as a non-democratic way to reach social consensus. As a result, the motion was defeated. 

  • Despite that moment of moderation, polarization has deepened. The most controversial recent proposal would establish a parallel legal standard to judges to treat Indigenous Peoples separately from the other civilians. Another would create a new federal-like regional state structure that its proponents say ’would end the Chilean Republic as unitary, dividing the country into smaller or even local-autonomous units.
  • These proposals have further split Convention members.  Some right-wing members now question their continuity in the constitutional process and are considering a campaign for the nay in the exit plebiscite on the document, scheduled for the third quarter of this year. Moderates, including former leftists, who rejected the regional states motion have been criticized by their former allies as too soft and as continuistas of the existing Chilean model. 

The Convention’s dysfunction is taking its toll on its image and, ultimately, its potential effectiveness as critics have proliferated. Last month public support for the body had fallen to 50 percent, and citizens intending to approve the Carta Magna dropped from 56 to 47 percent. Accordingly, influential members of Chilean society – including politicians, intellectuals, and scientists – have gathered to call for moderation and understanding.  Moreover, some emblematic personalities of the left have even campaigned to reject the constitutional proposal in the plebiscite later this year – a position that was unthinkable at the beginning of the process.

  • Approval of any article of the new Constitution requires a two-thirds vote, so moderation and negotiation by both sides are key if the Convention is to complete its process. The conservatives will need to cede their defense of the status quo, meaning the current Constitution, and refrain from taking extreme positions such as threatening to leave the process. Conversely, the leftists should lessen their reforming desde-cero character. Time is running out, as they must not only finish the constitutional draft but convince voters to approve it.
  • The process is likely to take more twists and turns, but ratification of the new Constitution still appears more likely than failure because of a broad-based desire to end the chaos the country has been experiencing. Even so, the support for and legitimacy of the new Bill of Rights will be weak, and politicians could very well propose to discuss it again as a relief valve, diverting attention rather than finding solutions. On the other hand, moderation could prevail, for at least a while, because the right and the center agree on the new Constitution’s proposed provisions on better healthcare, public education, and pension system. The exit plebiscite will take place under compulsory voting, so around half of the population will be unable to dodge the likely difficult decisions ahead.

March,07,2022

*Miguel Zlosilo is a sociologist and former chief of research of the Secretary of Communications in the second Sebastián Piñera government (2018-21). Carlos Cruz Infante is a sociologist and has served in several senior strategic planning positions in the Chilean government.

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1 Comment

  1. Very solid analysis, although how the autonomy issue for Indigenous peoples (particularly in terms of the Mapuche) is resolved is critical if there is ever to be hope for ending what has now become a low intensity guerrilla war in the Araucania and Alto Bio Bio.

    Reply

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