Who wins in Chile’s new constitution?

The reason the right has insisted on talking of a constitutional ‘convention’ rather than an ‘assembly’ is that the scope of its discussions will be defined in advance by a preparatory committee.

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Activist Alondra Carrillo has waited for years for Chile to replace its 1980 constitution, a relic of the Pinochet dictatorship. Every government since the transition ‘towards’ democracy has done its best to preserve the status quo, but huge demonstrations despite the Covid-19 pandemic have finally forced the current administration to promise change.


Carrillo and her colleagues from CF8M (the 8 March Feminist Coordinating Committee) are standing in the 11 April[1] election to the Constitutional Convention. Two thousand people, rejecting traditional parties, haven chosen to stand as independent candidates, and a virtual platform was set up to help them collect voter signatures supporting their candidature. But on 2 March the electoral authority published campaign finance rules that treated independent candidates differently from those belonging to major parties. Carrillo was furious, calling this ‘anti-popular discrimination’. For the 450 independents who had already gathered enough signatures, the struggle was far from over.


To understand the situation today, we need to go back to 9 October 2019, when the multimillionaire rightwing president Sebastián Piñera described Chile as an oasis of calm in the turmoil of Latin America, because it had a ‘stable democracy’. A few days later, there were riots so big that the government invoked the state security law, which allows fast-track sentencing in the name of maintaining public order, and shut down the Santiago metro network. Demonstrators built barricades and fought the carabineros throughout the night. Metro stations, a police box and the headquarters of multinational energy firm Enel were set alight. Many people were injured.


By daybreak, Piñera had forgotten his oasis metaphor. Curfews were imposed in ten cities and the army was deployed on the streets — a first since the dictatorship. Next day, Piñera appeared on television, flanked by the defence minister and a brigadier-general in combat fatigues. His tone was martial: ‘We are at war against a powerful and implacable enemy who does not respect anything or anyone and who is willing to use violence without any limit’. Who was this enemy? The people of Chile, especially the young, who had risen up on a scale that recalled the 1980s protests against the dictatorship.


‘Chile awakes!’


Since the negotiated end of the military regime in 1989, Latin American elites had held Chile up as a model of ‘consensus democracy’. Yet the apparent success of the neoliberal counter-revolution begun by the military in 1975 had gradually evaporated, revealing an unequal, materialistic and unethical society. Pinochet had crushed the popular movement, precarious employment had become widespread, and resentment smouldered. Since 2006, students, port workers, miners, feminists, sexual minorities, people with private pensions and an indebted middle class had all shown their anger. It only needed a spark.


The trouble began on 6 October, when metro ticket prices in Santiago went up by 4%. The next day, high school students called on passengers to dodge fares and jump the ticket barriers, and thanks to social media the practice spread. The government put more police on the streets, but that only made things worse. On 25 October two million people demonstrated. The media, briefly setting aside their support for the government, called it the biggest demonstration in Chile’s history with headlines such as ‘Chile awakes!’.


All the grievances due to partial democratisation and a brutal economic model resurfaced. On Italy Square, renamed ‘Dignity Square’, flags of the indigenous Mapuche people appeared alongside Chile’s national colours. Walls bore graffiti attacking the political class, discredited by corruption scandals; the armed forces, tarnished by illicit enrichment; and the Catholic Church, guilty of protecting paedophiles. In the evening, working-class and middle-class districts united in banging saucepans. The government, its back to the wall, lifted the state of emergency; Piñera fired two ministers and announced a few timid social measures.


But the protests continued, as did the repression. According to Amnesty International, ‘carabinero officers violated the human rights of the protestors in a generalised manner’. In 44 days, more than 12,500 people needed emergency treatment at public hospitals; 2,000 had gunshot wounds, and 350 had serious eye injuries. The courts were flooded with cases alleging ill-treatment in police custody and accusations of sexual assault by custodians of public authority.


But the culture of impunity has persisted. More than 2,000 people (including 200 temporarily detained) have yet to be tried; some have been waiting over 12 months. Some are minors; all are regarded as political prisoners by a number of lawyers and politicians. Chilean Communist Party MP Camila Vallejo has called for an amnesty.


While making vigorous use of the police, the government soon realised it needed a political solution. Not that the parliamentary opposition was in a position to harness the energy of the street: centre-left party and trade union leaders were bewildered, even scared, by this decentralised, radical and horizontally structured movement, which challenged their adoption of neoliberalism over the last 30 years. The ‘insurgents’ soon demanded that Piñera step down. The success of a national strike on 12 November, which the Unified Workers’ Central (CUT) agreed to organise under the pressure of events, showed employers and the president that the situation was grave.


‘Surrendered without honour’


The coalition government— centred on the National Renewal (RN) and Independent Democratic Union (UDI) parties — then executed a skilful tactical manoeuvre. In the night of 15 November, it persuaded key members of the Congress to sign an ‘agreement for social peace and a new constitution’. The aim was to appease the protesters by organising a referendum on the constitution. The Communist Party (PC) resisted the temptation, but the Christian Democrats and Socialists, in power from 1990 to 2010, and a majority of the Frente Amplio (broad front), a coalition of small leftwing parties born out of the student protests of 2011, accepted the idea in principle. Most of the opposition ‘surrendered without honour to the right, which intimidated them by brandishing the threat of a collapse of the state and perhaps a military coup,’ wrote journalist Manuel Cabieses.


There was criticism that the agreement had been signed on the back of a popular mobilisation, but the calls for Piñera to go gradually weakened. Some on the left saw the referendum (held in October 2020) as an opportunity to challenge the ultra-presidential and neoliberal regime, design more democratic institutions allowing greater popular participation, consider renationalising the copper, lithium and water sectors, and build a plurinational state that recognised the rights of indigenous peoples. But the turnout was only around 50%: 78% of voters wanted a new constitution, and 79% of those wanted a national assembly elected by universal direct suffrage; so, on 11 April Chileans will elect delegates to a Constitutional Convention.


This is a new chapter in Chile’s political history. In 200 years, the republic has only had constitutions drafted by the oligarchy. This time, after drawn-out debates in the Congress, the assembly will be 50:50 men and women (a world first) and include a quota of seats for representatives of indigenous peoples, though not as many as they would have liked. After deliberations lasting nine to 12 months, the new constitution will be submitted for approval by referendum. It is a victory. But for whom?


Piñera is back in control: previously he embodied Chile’s dysfunctions; now he is the guarantor of its transformation. Institutions are centre stage again. On 11 April[2] there will also be municipal and regional elections, after which media attention will focus on the presidential election, with its first round in November. Hardline elements of the coalition are outraged by the idea that Pinochet’s great constitutional oeuvre could be dismantled. But the reason the right has insisted on talking of a constitutional ‘convention’ rather than an ‘assembly’ is that the scope of its discussions will be defined in advance by a preparatory committee. For example, members will not be allowed to challenge international treaties, and therefore free trade agreements.


Every article proposed will have to be approved by a two-thirds majority, giving the right a blocking minority. This is especially significant because the right is united, whereas the centre and the alliance of the parliamentary left, around the PC, have been unable to agree common electoral lists. Finally, the possibility of a significant number of candidates from social movements standing has been averted: the electoral standards are based on party-list proportional representation, as used in parliamentary elections, which favours electoral pacts and gives disproportionate advantage to the lists scoring most votes.


Candidates who have secured backing outside the established parties will get just one second each of airtime during the official TV campaign. The ‘representative’ organisations have preserved their monopoly and will have several hundred thousand dollars each at their disposal (up to $800,000 for the UDI), while independent candidates will get just $1,700. It’s easy to see why Carrillo was angry, and why those around her have criticised the law as ‘favouring the bosses’.


‘An implacable enemy’


Yet Carrillo, the environmentalist Lucio Cuenca, trade unionist Luis Mesina and feminist lawyer Karina Nohales all believe participating was the right decision. They know the struggle will be a long one: ‘We have set out and defended our demands in the street and in the struggle to ensure that our demands and our programmes are presented at the convention in our own voice,’ said Nohales. ‘Our voice cannot be delegated, so today we are calling on voters not to restrict themselves to the parties that have implemented neoliberalism’.


Others are critical of the decision to participate, claiming that a constituent assembly formed in accordance with the wishes of the powerful is a trap. They maintain the elections will merely add a veneer of democracy to the existing system, changing the constitution so that nothing changes. This is, more or less, what Chile’s foreign minister Andrés Allamand (a former supporter of the dictatorship) was saying late last year. Attempting to reassure those who feared the new constitution would ‘refound’ Chile, he said that to do so would be a ‘serious mistake’. On the contrary, the new constitution would make it possible to ‘maintain ... some key pillars of Chile’s economic development, such as respect for private property, individual initiative and non-discrimination between domestic and foreign investment’.


The latest polls suggest conservatives are justified in rejoicing: with more than 40% of the seats, they should be comfortable blocking minorities at the convention, while the left, centred on the PC and FA, will have less than 20%, and the independents less than 5%. Thanks to his successful Covid vaccination programme, Piñera is gaining (very slightly) in the polls, and some friends have started to dream that he will be re-elected in late 2021.



- Franck Gaudichaud is a lecturer in Latin American history at Toulouse Jean-Jaurès University and editor of Gouvernements progressistes en Amérique latine (1998-2018): La fin d’un âge d’or, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2021. Translated by Charles Goulden.


Copyright ©2021 Le Monde diplomatique — used by permission of Agence Global.



[1] NdE: El 7 de abril, las autoridades anunciaron la postergación de la fecha de las elecciones del 11 de abril al 15 y 16 de mayo, por motivo de la pandemia del Covid-19.

[2] See footnote 1.



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