Chile: Crunch Time for Constitutional Convention

by Carlos Cruz Infante and Miguel Zlosilo*

Chilean protesters advocate for constitutional reform/ Jose Pereira / European Consortium for Political Research / Creative Commons License

Chile’s Constitutional Convention is fast approaching a point that will determine whether it produces a draft magna carta that, even if approved by referendum, fails to heal the splits in Chilean society that drove its creation, or that is delayed so long that supporters of keeping the 1980s-era charter succeed in blocking its approval. The original nine-month period established by law for the Convention to complete its tasks has expired, and its single three-month extension started on March 21 and ends on July 25. The body could conceivably ask the Congress and government for a second extension if it can present a viable timeline for completing the document.

  • Most observers agree that the current draft is flawed but that a majority of voters, eager for the process to end, would probably vote for it. Some polls show popular resentment toward convention members’ “highly paid easy job.” Enthusiasm for the new Constitution is showing signs of waning, however, so efforts to improve it could actually torpedo its passage.

Squabbles between the left and right are wasting precious time rather than moving the draft into the important “harmonization” phase for reviewing the whole text to ensure its coherence and internal consistency. 

  • The Bill of Rights is subject of great posturing and contention, with the left trying to rush through significantly expanded rights and long-contentious policies. For example, the left wants to nationalize sanitary services, highways, and mining, raising concerns about the implications for foreign investment. The right opposes such efforts and, confident that time is on its side, is stalling for time.
  • The left’s push for a new chamber of the Legislature to replace the current Senate has also caused controversy and delay. The proposed partición would have the ability to originate budget proposals, previously the exclusive domain of the President. Critics fear that it will not be subject to traditional checks on its power.
  • Disputes over protecting pension funds have been pitched. The Convention rejected a popular initiative, #ConMiPlataNo (Not with My Money), which was to block the eventual replacement of the private pension system with a public alternative in the wake of “voluntary withdrawals” that the Congress approved in 2020 and 2021 (even though such decisions are the prerogative of the Executive). This action further threatens popular support for whatever the Convention produces.

President Gabriel Boric also appears to be in a bind – ambivalent on how to harness the Constitutional process to support his own political goals. His opponents call him the Volteretas (cartwheels) because he has alternately supported and opposed further delays. He has said he supports giving more time for the body to “listen to the people,” but his spokespersons have said that his government’s crucial reforms depend heavily on prompt approval of the left-leaning Constitution – before further deliberations probably it water down. In fact, aside from tax reform, all of Boric’s significant proposals depend on a new left-leaning Constitution. 

  • Boric set September 4 as the date for the “exit referendum” on the new Constitution, apparently for the symbolism of September with Independence Day (on the 18th) and the anniversary of Augusto Pinochet’s coup (the 11th). His interest, like any president’s, is in launching his programs and building a firm electoral base for himself or a successor. Polls show his popular support slipping – now in the mid‑30s range – further suggesting that the window for him to push his agenda is closing. While his prospects at home seem to be in limbo, he is pushing hard outside Chile, such as with a high-profile trip to Argentina, to project himself as a strong regional leader.

The leftist or left-leaning leaders of the Constitutional Convention seem to be underestimating the need to use their document as originally intended by the 2020 plebiscite directing the drafting of a new Constitution: to heal deep splits within Chilean society and build a new consensus based on the highest common ideals of the nation. It’s natural for them to fight for a framework they find advantageous for their own ideological perspectives, but they risk squandering a historic opportunity to make institutional structures more effective instead of just asserting social rights.

  • Boric’s anxiety is understandable. Chilean Presidents’ honeymoons have been getting steadily shorter; positives can hold steady, but negatives now mount sooner in their terms. Former President Michelle Bachelet, for example, started her first term (2006) with over 50 percent approval, which didn’t begin to erode until five months later. During her second mandate, her approval hovered around 50 percent for several months but her disapproval rate increased drastically – from 20 percent to 32 percent – after just one month. Boric’s been in office a little over a month and already is seeing approvals drop below 50 percent and negatives rise to 30 percent. His political capital to push the Constitution is not likely to increase.

April 22, 2022

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

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