The hand of the Chilean President, Sebastián Piñera. He was the first to vote in the Constituent's elections on the weekend of May 16, 2021. Photo: Marcelo Segura/Presidencia/Gobierno de Chile.

Political outsiders will write the new Chilean Constitution

Of the more than 14 million Chilean voters, only six million went to the polls to define the Constituent Assembly members. The result shocked Chilean politicians and caused fear among financial market analysts. What will happen in the next nine months is totally unprecedented.

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Days ago, the Chilean political map was unexpectedly and abruptly reconfigured. It would be as if a powerful hand had pushed mountains to one side, created new valleys and rivers, shrunk previously existing plateaus, swept forests, installed deserts, and formed new jungles. Due to this recent “cataclysm,” analysts and scientists will take some time to understand the new “geography” of politics in the country. Furthermore, the “topographic” changes are not over yet. They will continue throughout 2021 and 2022, and possibly beyond that.

It was not like the meteorite crash that triggered the end of the dinosaurs … but almost. The election of the 155 constituents resulted in a huge loss to the moderate-right and right-wing parties that had presented themselves in a unified front, with a single list of candidates, despite their internal rivalries. The purpose of this union (uncomfortable for many of its participants) was to get at least a third of the votes (51 seats) so that the right could veto any “dangerous” initiative from the leftist politicians (for example, the end of the pension system based on private pension funds and its replacement by the previous state-owned system).

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No los unió el amor sino el espanto” (or “They were not united by love but by fear”) said – in another context and his youth – the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. Conventional left-wing parties were not as battered as their right-wing colleagues, but they certainly received a resounding slap from society.

Right, and center-right got 37 seats, 14 below the third needed to have the veto power. The radical left coalition, in its turn, obtained 28 seats, overtaking its center-left light rivals, who had 25 seats for the first time. Thus, the left and center-left, altogether, easily surpass the right and center-right.

The independents

These groups lost to the unexpected phenomenon of the “independents”: the emerging candidates who did not belong to party entities won 48 seats, that is, 31% of the Constituent Assembly. Politically, the independents would be mostly center-left and left. But, they do not constitute a unified body. On the contrary, they are fragmented.

A part of these independents, almost all political outsiders, are leaders who emerged during the protests of 2019 and the social upheaval of the beginning of 2020, including feminists, union leaders, social leaders, among others. Another part comes from society’s intellectual layer: scientists, urbanists, entrepreneurs, psychologists, and doctors. Some have an anti-system agenda, others focus on feminist proposals, and others are not interested in the class struggle but focused on environmental issues.

But the Observatorio Nueva Constitución points out that in addition to the 48 party independents, 40 politicians were elected “under the wing” of a party but who are not militants themselves. In this way, the weight of the two independent types rises to 88 chairs – the equivalent to 64% of the Constituent.

This means that the formal parties, the basis of Chilean politics in these two centuries of independence, will have to resign themselves to a secondary role in the formulation of the country’s new Magna Carta (although thanks to their historical ability to maneuver and negotiate, they will probably be able to influence some discussions over the next few months).

Hours after the ballot count was closed, right-wing President Sebastián Piñera acknowledged the defeat of his political spectrum and said that the government and the historic parties “are not adequately tuning the demands and desires of citizenship.” Regarding the victory of the independents, he said that the government and the opposition are being challenged by what he called “new expressions and new leaderships.”

The indigenous people

In addition to the independents, there are 17 constituents elected by indigenous communities. Of these, the Mapuche community, which led the main indigenous protests in recent decades, was entitled to 7 seats. The Aymara two. And the remaining eight original peoples were left with a representative each, among them the Rapa Nui, from Easter Island.

Indigenous people have historically been excluded from Chilean political decisions, both by right and center-left governments. They could be an “independent” addition to the Constituent equation. They have been protesting intermittently for two decades, demanding the handing over ancestral lands, especially in the south of the country. Both in the former government, of ex-president Michelle Bachelet, and in the current one, of president Piñera, the indigenous people had severe clashes with the police. The security forces accused them of attacking “white” farms and churches.

Subtracting indigenous people, the actual number of constituents that formally belong to political parties is only 50.

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The crisis of historical parties

The middling performance of the Chilean parties is the tip of the iceberg of the ciclópea crisis in the representativeness of these political groups. The political parties (involved in a series of corruption scandals) have been suffering from virtual deafness for decades in the face of the demands of society. There is a lack of concrete reaction before the crisis initiated in 2019.

According to a Center for Public Studies (CEP) survey, only 2% of Chileans trust existing political parties. The survey, made in April this year, also shows that only 8% trust in the Parliament, and 9% in the government.

It should be noted that, despite the crisis that is plaguing the Chilean political parties, their entire dynamics have always been very predictable. In Chile (as well as in Argentina or Uruguay, but quite differently than in Brazil), nobody moves from one party to another so easily. Generally, when someone falls out with a party, they end up founding a new one – but then again, it rarely happens.

Also, in Chile, people vote on the parties’ list. That is, one does not vote for a specific deputy separately but in a party (and the party has its list of deputies).

Now with the Constituent’s independents, nothing is predictable.

US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger with Pinochet, in 1976. Photo: Archivo General Histórico del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores/ CC BY 2.0 cl

A “Frankenstein” without legitimacy: the Pinochetist Constitution

The current Constitution dates from General August Pinochet’s dictatorship and was approved by a controversial plebiscite in 1980, made in the middle of the military regime. At the time, the dictatorship carried out an intense TV campaign – something forbidden to the opposition, whose representatives had either been executed or exiled. In addition, the authoritarian regime was also responsible for counting the votes.

In the last three decades, since the return of democracy, this “Pinochet” constitution has been reformed 21 times. In one of them, at Pinochet’s wish, the presidential term was reduced to eight years. Another change, made in 2005, put an end to the senatorial positions’ lifelong character and ended the Armed Forces’ indications for nine of the Senate’s positions.

From that original Constitution, there are few remnants of Pinochet. However, those left behind are controversial in Chilean society. Among them, the withdrawal of the State’s role in various areas of social services, such as pensions, leaving everything in the hands of individuals and authorizing the State to intervene only in cases of extreme need.

President Sebastián Piñera voting for the election of the constituents. Photo: Marcelo Segura/ Presidencia/Gobierno de Chile.

The reduced turnout at the polls in Chile

In October of last year, 78% of the voters who attended the polls gave the “yes” to the summons of the constituent. Looking at it in detail, however, electoral participation was at 50.2%. This time, in the Constituent Assembly elections, participation was even lower, at 41.5% of Chilean voters.

Voting in the country has not been mandatory since the 2013 presidential elections. At that time, abstention was enormous. Michelle Bachelet won the election with 3.4 million votes (62% of voters who attended the polls). It looked impressive, but it was only 25% of the electorate. Likewise, in 2017, Sebastián Piñera was elected with 49.2% of the votes, but they accounted for only 26% of the total electorate.

That is, both Bachelet and Piñera represented, in practice, a minority of Chilean society. Bachelet ended her term with high unpopularity. Piñera has been unpopular since 2019, and it seems that he will end his term with the worst presidential performance in the democratic era.

In 1988, when Chileans voted in the plebiscite that defined the end of the Pinochet dictatorship, 97.5% of the electorate went to the polls. In the presidential elections of the following year, 93.7% voted. The end of mandatory voting caused an abrupt drop in participation.

Pereira Palace, in Santiago, will be the stage for the elaboration of the new Chilean Constitution. Photo: De DelRoble Caleu/ Trabajo propio, CC BY-SA 4.0.

What will the process for the new Chilean Constitution be like

Between the end of June and early July, the 155 elected constituents will start drafting the new Chilean Constitution. They will work at the Pereira Palace, an old neoclassical mansion in Santiago’s center. But the plenary sessions will be held at the former National Congress Palace (since 1990, the Chilean Parliament is located in the city of Valparaíso, while the Executive Branch remains in Santiago).

  • The constituents will have a period of nine months to draft and approve the new Constitution;
  • Each article will have to be approved by two-thirds of the constituents, a proportion that aims to guarantee (at least theoretically) that each point has the support of the majority of society;
  • If necessary, the constituents may extend the work once, for three months;
  • In this way, the new Chilean Magna Carta would be ready between May and July 2021;
  • A minimum of two-thirds for the document’s approval is also a way of ensuring that Chile’s new fundamental law will not be subject to reforms or “band-aid” amendments any time soon;
  • Once completed and approved by the constituents, it will be sent to the President, who will have to call for a plebiscite within a maximum period of 60 days. If hypothetically, Chileans vote against this new Constitution, the current one will continue in force.

The only conditions for the draft of Chile‘s new Constitution are that the country will continue to be a Republic and that previous judicial sentences, as well as the international treaties previously signed, will be maintained.

The deadlines for drafting the Chilean Constitution are relatively short because the country urgently needs to determine a course.

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Real-time discussion and parity between men and women: the Chilean Constituent innovations

This will be the first Constituent Assembly on the planet to be elaborated under the parity of men and women. As there are 155 constituents (an odd number), the complex calculation system was divided between 77 women and 78 men.

This will also be the world’s first Constituent since the emergence of social networks, which promises to boost debates in and out the plenary. It will be a kind of “reality show,” with Internet users praising and cursing the constituents in real-time.

In more than 200 years of Chile‘s independent existence, this will also be the first Chilean Constitution written without military tutelage.

Oh, and of course, all of this will happen in this new post-pandemic world.

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Markets fear Chile’s new Constitution

Since the mid-1980s, Chile has been the greatest Latin American laboratory for neoliberal practices; it was the markets’ enfant gâté. Ironically, Chilean analyst and diplomat Gabriel Gaspar defines his country like this: “Chile is the North Korea of neoliberalism.”

Chile is now entering an unkown phase. With the Constituent elections, the country’s financial and economic future is still hard to read. The day after the elections, the Santiago Stock Exchange fell, and the Chilean peso devalued. Analysts say that investors will take a much more cautious approach during the months of the Constituent Assembly.

BNamericas‘ website indicated that the result of the constitutional elections “eliminated one layer of uncertainty that had been hanging over the country since the last months of 2019. But it replaced that layer of uncertainty with another”.

Several Assembly sectors intend to end (or reduce) the private pension system and bring back the state-led social security system. Others want to review mining contracts. Some sectors want to end the privatization of water supply (an increasingly sensitive issue in Chile due to the growing droughts plaguing the country).

Some analysts argue that there will be no cohesive independent majority. The independents are fragmented (at least for now), with enormous heterogeneity between them. And, as it is fragmented, the Constituent Assembly will require a lot of internal negotiation.

There is, however, another factor that increases the market’s anxiety: in November this year, the country will go through the first round of presidential elections. In December, the second round will take place. The new president will take over in March, with the Constituent Assembly still in progress. That is, the presidential elections will take place in a hectic atmosphere of debate around the new Magna Carta.

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The similarities between Chile and the Titanic

Behind this phenomenon of independents politicians, the historical parties’ crisis, and the society’s demand for a fairer economic model, decades of right and left governments have only accumulated social problems.

In 2019, Chile was the most socially unequal country in the OECD. In addition, it had a Gini coefficient of 0.45 – it was more unequal than Argentina, El Salvador, Ecuador, and Uruguay. But abroad, its image was quite different.

Chile, in a way, has several parallels with the Titanic transatlantic. Even before making its first (and final) voyage, the ship had a marketing campaign that stated that it was a “model” for the entire shipbuilding industry.

The builders said that it would never sink. In addition, the White Star Line company displayed the Titanic as a luxury symbol. Yes, it was. But only for the elite, who had exuberant and refined cabins at their disposal. The vast majority of passengers, the poor, were squeezed like sardines on the lower decks. In addition, the Titanic did not have a tangible Plan B for an eventual disaster (the ship had few lifeboats).

Well, Chile is a kind of “South American social Titanic.” It has been the target of a lot of marketing since the 1990s, convincing most of the neighbors that it was a model to be followed (while disguising its huge socio-economic problems).

Government and opposition parties did something similar to what Captain Edward Smith, Titanic’s commander, did in 1912 when the iceberg crashed into the ocean liner. In the first moments of the tragedy, he considered that it was not so serious. It took him a long time to issue an order to save the passengers. Disoriented, he also wasted valuable time giving ambiguous orders. The result? Smith sank with the ship.

Translated by Fabiane Ziolla Menezes