Chile: Analysis of a Defeat

Against the Current, No. 221, November/December 2022

Oscar Mendoza

“Constitutional assembly now!! #Resign Piñera,” reads a sign during protests in Chile in October 2019. José Miguel Cordero Carvacho / Wikimedia

ON SEPTEMBER 4, 2022 Chileans voted decisively and by a large margin to reject the proposed new progressive constitution. The document had been drafted by a constitutional convention that worked over 12 months to deliver its proposals. The draft would have replaced the current one, which had been written by a small group of extreme right-wing “experts” and imposed by the Pinochet dictatorship via a fraudulent plebiscite in 1980.

In 2020 the plebiscite to decide on choosing a fully-elected constitutional convention charged with drafting a new constitution won a huge majority. Representatives opposing a new constitution secured less than a third of the vote, thus preventing them from vetoing any proposals.

At first glance, it is difficult if not impossible to understand not only the triumph of the rejection camp but its massive margin of victory (68% rejection versus 32% approval). This article offers an analysis of the historic defeat for progressive forces in Chile.

Many structural causes have been discussed, along with contingent ones associated with the Covid pandemic and the inflationary crisis. The new constitution would have placed the role of the state front and center, creating guarantees for key social and economic rights.

The outcome has therefore been painful for its supporters. Particularly for this reason we have a duty to understand the rejection.

Changing Context

The erroneous reading of the context in which the convention took place and of the challenges faced by ordinary Chileans during the period, led both members of the convention and political forces outside to fail to take account of changes that had occurred since the social explosion and political compromise of late 2019 that created the basis for developing a new constitution.

As a result, they were unable to anticipate what they were about to come up against.

Early 2020 saw the onset of the Covid pandemic across the globe, resulting in massive changes in every sphere of life. Lockdowns and associated restrictions put an end to rallies and campaigns, except those occurring under very special circumstances.

Those sectors of the population that potentially had most to gain from political action became more atomized and inward looking. They suffered the worst effects of the pandemic in terms of employment, earnings and quality of life. The order of the day was to put food on the table and pay the bills. Heaven could wait!

Meanwhile the brutal repression by the Piñera government, whether in response to peaceful or violent protests, was widely condemned by a range of human rights organizations starting with the UN. The accompanying breakdown in public order caused concern among large numbers of Chileans who don’t normally participate in politics.

Already anxious about the future and battered by the pandemic, they witnessed how the cost of living crisis unleashed by the Russian invasion of the Ukraine in February 2022 made things worse.

They also faced continuing high levels of violent crime (armed robberies, carjackings), especially in the capital, Santiago. In addition, the effects of mass illegal immigration from other Latin American countries, which particularly affected the North of the country, and violent conflict in the Indigenous Mapuche areas in the South, added to the general climate of instability and uncertainty that fuelled the rejection campaign.

The left, or we might say center-left Boric government came to power only in March 2022. Nevertheless sections of the population, encouraged by a relentless media campaign to undermine the administration at every turn, began to blame the new president and his largely inexperienced cabinet for many of these problems.

People’s needs were so urgent that the limited progress Boric was able to achieve in his six months in office only served to further inflame the opposition. It too become an element of the rejection vote.

Dynamics of the Convention

Within the constitutional convention, about a third were a mainly independent mix of identity-based groups (Indigenous peoples, feminists, environmentalists, sexual minorities). They had been most active during the social unrest of October 2019.

Their demands had been ignored for decades and when they came to the convention they were full of anger and frustration. They had minimal — if any — disposition to dialogue and compromise.

A slightly larger proportion represented people aligned with political forces in support of change; however, without direct party allegiance they couldn’t be influenced to adopt this or that position.

A smaller minority quickly showed that its main role in the convention would be one of obstruction and opposition, placing itself firmly in the rejection camp.

There was no real effort to build internal alliances and generate a consensus. Therefore the work of the convention was often like trying to control a “sack of cats,” to use a Chilean expression.

For their part, the political parties in support of change and the Boric government supported the approval option, but were preoccupied with implementing the platform of the new government. They failed to provide the leadership required for a successful yes vote. The parties were unsure and uncertain as to how influence the October plebiscite, particularly when voters had not elected them to the convention

They were also fearful of being accused of “interventionism” by the right. This variety of viewpoints within parties and the new government resulted in a lack of unity and even discord.

This lack of leadership was compounded within the working of the convention itself and the behavior of some of its members. Initial weeks were taken up, and to the dismay of the general public, with countless rounds of voting to determine the convention leadership and membership for its various thematic strands. From that moment, the convention seemed to disappear into its own bubble, growingly distant from public sentiment in the country at large.

The symbolic election of a Mapuche woman and Indigenous rights activist as the first president of the convention could in hindsight be considered an error. Regardless of her evident personal abilities and qualifications, this act appeared to large sections of the population as “favoring” minority viewpoints over the interests of the majority.

Convention members seemed to believe that when voters were asked to approve or reject the proposed new constitution, it was a mere formality. Given that large majorities had voted for change, it’s understandable that members assumed their perspective represented most of the country. They didn’t feel the need to consider other viewpoints, whether inside the convention or outside.

To make matters worse, some individual convention members undermined its overall credibility with the public by unacceptable behavior. For example, Giovanna Grandón, aka Tía Pikachu, representing the independent People’s List, went about dressed up as the Pokémon character from which she takes her nickname. Chileans don’t lack a sense of humor but most demand different standards from their representatives.

Rodrigo Rojas Vade, also from the People’s List, was chosen as one of the convention vice-presidents during it first phase. But he’d fraudulently claimed to be suffering from cancer in order to elicit sympathy; his unmasking caused untold damage to a convention already much criticized.

Other convention members created controversy by apparent disregard for other viewpoints. Especially troubling was aggressive and intemperate language not only in speeches but in public pronouncements.

The sum of these failings fed a torrent of mainstream media stories and a strong anti-convention narrative. By the end of 2021, the rejection campaign already had the upper hand. Garnering large financial support, it became an unstoppable rollercoaster.

Another key element, in my view, was that the output from the convention — variously referred to as “maximalist,” diffuse, or an endless “wish list” — was so far from the substantial but gradual change that a majority of Chileans expected. Even those wholly in favor of change became uncertain at first and later opposed the proposals.

Many political figures, analysts and commentators (influencers, if you like) who supported the drafting of a new constitution, steadily became critical of the convention and its product. Eventually they publicly joined the rejection camp. Others, such as ex-president Ricardo Lagos — the entrepreneurs’ favorite — raised significant objections and in a sort of veiled way placed himself outside the approval camp.

The 2022 proposed constitution had 388 articles, having been whittled down from almost 500 by the convention’s harmonization committee! By comparison, the Pinochet-imposed 1980 constitution had 120 articles,

Given the scale of the rejection, I don’t believe we can gain much by examining all the constitution’s positive provisions. However, it would be fair to say that it would have become the most progressive and advanced founding document on the planet, eclipsing those of much more developed and advanced countries.

It’s as if convention members wanted us to go from a hugely restrictive, reactionary and oppressive constitution to the most progressive in one fell swoop.

Aftermath of the Rejection

It cannot be ignored, though its significance I believe has been a bit overstated, that the political, economic and social forces behind the rejection option conducted a huge public opinion campaign by misrepresenting, exaggerating and plain lying about the proposals. They were able to build up a sense that the convention’s work failed to deliver what Chileans wanted and expected.

Having control of most of the mass media and a well-resourced and skilled social media onslaught gave the rejection camp a significant and ultimately telling advantage.

While the approval option developed its proposals and began its mass outreach campaign, the rejection option started campaigning almost from the convention’s inception. Its message was simple: Reject!

The large and diffuse nature of the new constitution’s proposals made it difficult for supporters to develop a simple and coherent narrative. Once the climate of public opinion formed that the convention had failed, there was no going back.

Since the decisive rejection of the plebiscite, some analysts and activists on the left have expressed the view that Chileans voted out of ignorance and against their own interests as a result of the campaign of lies and misinformation. Fake news did it, they argue.

While I believe this played an undeniable part in creating the climate of opinion that led to the rejection vote, I think it is an error to say that. As we get more data and breakdowns of the result by demographics, geography and so on, it becomes clearer that it was the combination of many factors, to a differing degree depending on the individual voters.

In spite of a government campaign to facilitate access to the text and to encourage “informed voting,” probably only a tiny minority of those Chileans most closely and actively involved in politics read the new constitution‘s proposals. Most went by the perception, created over almost two years of campaigning against change by the rich and powerful, additionally aided and abetted by influential foreign media outlets.

A Summary and Next Step

Perhaps one of the most important factors behind the rejection vote was that unlike all recent elections since January 2012, the September 4th plebiscite required mandatory voting for all registered persons. This meant that almost 86% of the over 15 million registered voters took part.

Compared to the vote on the process for drafting a new constitution, where only half of registered voters expressed a preference, more than five million more participated. In fact, more voters chose to reject than the total of voters in the 2020 plebiscite.

This large universe of “new” voters came mainly from sectors of the population usually unengaged in politics. They came from all regions of the country and from all socio-economic sectors. They could be described as independent, moderate and pragmatic in outlook and relatively nonpolitical. A large majority voted to reject.

It’s possible that being forced to vote by the harsh — for most — financial penalties involved in not casting their vote, they expressed a rejection of politics in general. They might have seen the constitutional process as unrepresentative of their lived experiences, of a government and political institutions that don’t provide remedies to their ongoing plight. The new constitution may have represented for them a “jump into the unknown,” a step too far.

In summary, I believe that Chilean voters had many and varied reasons for rejecting the new constitution.

A large majority simply didn’t have confidence that the new founding document would provide the basis for the social, economic, cultural and political changes needed. They balked at the radical nature of many of the proposals; they were utterly confused by the sheer number of articles and what they meant for their lives and well being.

Are the long-term efforts at reform and change dead? Not for one minute, I think.

President Boric, in accepting the result of the vote, a highly damaging outcome for him personally and for his government, stated clearly that the process to develop a new constitution would continue. He pledged that his government would play a facilitating role, encouraging and supporting dialogue to make that possible.

Interestingly, having campaigned to reject, Chile Vamos, the largest coalition on the right, remains committed to a new constitution. In spite of their internal differences, failing to go through with their commitment would in all likelihood prove costly in political and electoral terms.

Nonetheless, first steps have not been positive. On the eve of a reconvened meeting of political and congressional leaders tasked with discussing the way forward, Chile Vamos issued a statement declaring “red lines” in key areas. These included “right to life”/anti-abortion, private education, health and pension benefits and private ownership of water resources. Time will tell whether this stance, which would put an end to meaningful change, can hold.

In congress, both the presidents of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate have pledged their support to a new process and are actively working to achieve consensus among the different political blocks.

It’s ironic that those same political actors rejected by the voters in 2020 are now the only realistic hope of securing the desired change. Leading political figures have spoken of the absolute need to have a new constitution in place before the 50th anniversary of the coup d’état in September 2023.

From an economic point of view, the climate of uncertainty is an obstacle to the much needed tax reform and internal investment that would provide the funds required to pay for reforms in education, health, pensions, social care and environmental protections that most Chileans demand.

Though the economy has recovered well from the pandemic, a fact highlighted by the OECD, the continuing political uncertainty works against that positive trend. The very high value of the U.S. dollar across the globe also further damages Chile’s performance.

I, for one, agree with our departed comrade president, Salvador Allende, in saying that I have faith in Chile and its destiny.

Change will come. It has taken far too long and it might not be everything we wished and hoped for, but it will come and the future of our country will undoubtedly be brighter.

November-December 2022, ATC 221

Leave a comment

ATC welcomes online comments on stories that are posted on its website. Comments are intended to be a forum for open and respectful discussion.
Comments may be denied publication for the use of threatening, discriminatory, libelous or harassing language, ad hominem attacks, off-topic comments, or disclosure of information that is confidential by law or regulation.
Anonymous comments are not permitted. Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *