By Inés M. Pousadela
MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, May 19 2023 (IPS)
On 7 May, Chileans went to the polls to choose a Constitutional Council that will produce a new constitution to replace the one bequeathed by the Pinochet dictatorship – and handed control to a far-right party that never wanted a constitution-making process in the first place.
This is the second attempt at constitutional change in two years. The first process was the most open and inclusive in Chile’s history. The resulting constitutional text, ambitious and progressive, was widely rejected in a referendum. It’s now far from certain that this latest, far less inclusive process will result in a new constitution that is accepted and adopted – and there’s a possibility that any new constitution could be worse than the one it replaces.
A long and winding road
Chile’s constitution-making process was born out of mass protests that erupted in October 2019, under the neoliberal administration of Sebastián Piñera. Protests only subsided when the leaders of major parties agreed to hold a referendum to ask people whether they wanted a new constitution and, if so, how it should be drafted.
In the vote in October 2020, almost 80 per cent of voters backed constitutional change, with a new constitution to be drafted by a directly elected Constitutional Assembly. In May 2021, the Constitutional Assembly was elected, with an innovative mechanism to ensure gender parity and reserved seats for Indigenous peoples. Amid great expectations, the plural and diverse body started a one-year journey towards a new constitution.
Pushed by the same winds of change, in December 2021 Chile elected its youngest and most unconventional president ever: former student protester Gabriel Boric. But things soon turned sideways, and support for the Constitutional Assembly – often criticised as made up of unskilled amateurs – declined steadily along with support for the new government.
In September 2022, a referendum resulted in an overwhelming rejection of the draft constitution. Although very progressive in its focus on gender and Indigenous rights, a common criticism was that the proposed constitution failed to offer much to advance basic social rights in a country characterised by heavy economic inequality and poor public services. Disinformation was also rife during the campaign.
The second attempt kicked off in January 2023, with Congress passing a law laying out a new process with a much more traditional format. Instead of the large number of independent representatives involved before, this handed control back to political parties. The timeframe was shortened, the assembly made smaller and the previous blank slate replaced by a series of agreed principles. The task of producing the first draft is in the hands of a Commission of Experts, with a technical body, the Technical Admissibility Committee, guarding compliance with a series of agreed principles. One of the few things that remained from the previous process was gender parity.
Starting in March, the Commission of Experts was given three months to produce a new draft, to be submitted to the Constitutional Council for debate and approval. A referendum will be held in December to either ratify or reject the new constitution.
Rise of the far right
Compared with the 2021 election for the Constitutional Convention, the election for the Constitutional Council was characterised by low levels of public engagement. A survey published in mid-April found that 48 per cent of respondents had little or no interest in the election and 62 per cent had little or no confidence in the constitution-making process. Polls also showed increasing dissatisfaction with the government: in late 2022, approval rates had plummeted to 27 per cent. This made an anti-government protest vote likely.
While the 2021 campaign focused on inequality, this time the focus was on rising crime, economic hardship and irregular migration, pivoting to security issues. The party that most strongly reflected and instrumentalised these concerns came out the winner.
The far-right Republican Party, led by defeated presidential candidate José Antonio Kast, received 35.4 per cent of the votes, winning 23 seats on the 50-member council. The government-backed Unity for Chile came second, with 28.6 per cent and 16 seats. The traditional right-wing alliance Safe Chile took 21 per cent of the vote and got 11 seats. No seats were won by the populist People’s Party and the centrist All for Chile alliance, led by the Christian Democratic Party. The political centre has vanished, with polarisation on the rise.
What to expect
The Expert Commission will deliver its draft proposal on 6 June and the Constitutional Council will then have five months to work on it, approving decisions with the votes of three-fifths of its members – meaning 31 votes will be needed to make decisions, and 21 will be enough to block them. This gives veto power to the Republican Party – and if it manages to work with the traditional right wing, they will be able to define the new constitution’s contents.
The chances of the new draft constitution being better than the old one are slim. In the best-case scenario, only cosmetic changes will be introduced. In the worst, an even more regressive text will result.
People will have the final say on 17 December. If they ratify the proposed text, Chile will adopt a constitution that is, at best, not much different from the existing one. If they reject it, Chileans will be stuck with the old constitution that many rose up against in 2019. Either way, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to expand the recognition of rights will have been lost, and it will fall on civil society to keep pushing for the recognition and protection of human rights.
Inés M. Pousadela is CIVICUS Senior Research Specialist, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.