Protesters gathering in Santiago's Plaza Italia. November 11, 2019 Photo: Photo by hugo fuentes from Pexels
On October 25, 2020, Chile’s people voted by a crushing margin to support the writing of a new constitution, and to do so through the election of a new constitutional convention. This was an overwhelming defeat of the Chilean government, which had initially sought to amend the existing 1980 constitution — inherited from the Pinochet dictatorship — and then to have a new constitution written by the parliament they dominate.
The Chilean left has always rejected the legitimacy of Pinochet’s 1980 constitution. In fact, the entire opposition rejected it until the mid-1980s, when US efforts to support a “democratic transition” began. Pulling together regime and opposition “moderates” meant pulling apart the broader opposition, and gradually the situation changed until eventually only the Communists and various smaller groups maintained their outright hostility to the constitution.
Accepting the dictatorship’s constitution, and to never again attempt a Popular Unity-type government — the political coalition led by socialist president Salvador Allende from 1970 to 1973 — was the price paid for a return to power within a highly restricted democracy. “We have left them bound, well bound,” noted Pinochet smugly.
But the price was paid by the people in every struggle since 1990. Students, Indigenous people, workers, environmentalists and every social or political movement for change eventually met with the implacable wall of Pinochet’s constitution. It was reformed several times, removing the most egregious authoritarian elements such as designated senators, but its essence remained: no major social, political or economic reform was possible. It was a straight jacket, a pressure cooker of words and concepts. Its strength lay in the fears of a traumatized society, buttressed by a pliant media, and the shift towards a consumer society in a world in which socialism was dead.
The legitimacy of the government in tatters
But the model began to fragment in 2010, when Chile elected a right-wing government for the first time since the 1950s. This was an early sign that the Concertación centrist coalition had lost its allure. The coalition split over whether to compensate for this weakness by allying with the Communist Party. New political parties were founded, fed by the student protest movement. A new center-left coalition, including the Communist Party for the first time since the Popular Unity, was set up. Called the “New Majority,” it governed under President Michelle Bachelet until 2015.
But corruption had set in during the long years of power. Highly-paid politicians had also become involved in profit-making from education and pensions. Inequality grew, and it fed anger. In hindsight, the coming eruption was obvious, the intensity of the struggle was growing. After 2015 hardly a month went by without scandal or protest, and all of them were violently repressed by Carabineros (national police) who had hardly changed since Pinochet’s time.
In October last year, the pressure cooker exploded. School students protesting a metro fare hike were beaten and shot with rubber pellets. Within a day the mass protests had started. The government at first tried condemnation and repression; they even brought the army onto the streets. Dozens were killed and wounded, but the protests did not end — if anything they grew.
With the legitimacy of the government in tatters, in the popular mind the protests had become the embodiment of Chile. The government proposed that parliament could write a new constitution but this was rejected. How could the people who had benefited from and sustained the old constitution be put in charge of writing the new one?
Overthrowing the last vestiges of the dictatorship
In November 2019, the government and parliament agreed to put the question to a referendum, asking two questions: whether voters wanted a new constitution, and then whether it should be written by the existing parliament or a new “constitutional convention” — anything to avoid calling it a “constituent assembly” as the left has demanded for years. During the protests, popular cabildos (councils) were set up across the country to discuss the demands of the movement, which helped build coherence and unity. Then, on October 25, the Chilean people voted by almost 80 percent to support the new constitution and to elect a constitutional convention.
This long history helps explain the profound collective joy being experienced in Chile today. “We’re living a collective euphoria,” one friend told me. Not only had the Chilean people finally — symbolically — overthrown the last vestiges of the dictatorship, but they had also rediscovered their political power.
Now, Chile awaits elections to a constitutional convention in April 2021, which has nine months — extendable to 12 upon request — to debate and put forward a new constitution; followed by a fresh referendum to ratify or reject it within 60 days. Within a year or so, Chile will have a new constitution and be able to move forward free from the legacy of the dictatorship.
Potential barriers to change
However, as the saying goes, there is many a slip betwixt the cup and the lip, and now the struggle shifts into the difficult phase of institutionalization. During the protests last year, a “national agreement” was signed between the government and some opposition parties which established the procedures for the constitutional plebiscite.
In a sign of the debates which are beginning in Chile today, a handful of parties including the Humanists and the Communist Party refused to sign the agreement, arguing that it failed to establish any guaranteed seats for either women or indigenous peoples. They also pointed to several shortcomings with the way that the new constitution would be developed.
For example, the agreement stipulates that the members of the convention will be elected according to the rules governing parliamentary elections, and that the content of the new constitution must be agreed by two-thirds of the 155 members of the convention rather than a simple majority. Nor is there any clarity on how social movements or independents will be able to be represented in the convention given that the electoral system is built around party lists.
These issues explain why opponents of the agreement saw it as something of a sell-out, providing the right with guarantees without establishing strong positions for the popular movement. Parliament has also passed several amendments to the existing constitution to enable the new constitutional process. Among them is Article 135 which states that the new constitution must respect Chile’s democracy and cannot override the country’s commitments under existing free trade agreements. These issues create potential barriers to change which must be borne in mind.
Furthermore, Latin American experience also shows that new constitutions do not always deliver real progress. For example, the Colombian constitution which dates from 1991 contains a plethora of rights and guarantees, including specific ones for Afro-Colombians and Indigenous people. Despite this, Colombia remains vastly unequal, mired in para-state violence and its legal system is swamped with people striving for years to make their rights effective. This is no doubt the model being looked to by the Chilean elite.
Rights can be conceded as long as the means to uphold them are withheld. Yet Chile’s hope is that for the first time in decades, the elite is politically isolated and its ideological dominance broken. Recent polls showed that 77 percent of Chileans see a “great conflict” between rich and poor, whilst only 22 percent agree with the elite that “public order” is an issue.
Furthermore, Chile’s institutions face a serious crisis of legitimacy, particularly in the wake of their completely inadequate response to COVID-19. This means that there is a huge opportunity now to rewrite the rulebook, although the challenge over the next few months will be to translate mass social mobilization into dominance of the convention.
Political purity or a broad church?
There are potential problems with doing this. Some Chilean commentators argue that the country now faces three connected struggles — for a new leader, to elect a left-leaning convention and the fight to define the content of the new constitution. Others point to the fact that the recent plebiscite result was won with just over half the potential electorate voting, and while turnout was higher than in the last presidential elections of November 2017 — despite COVID-19 — and higher in poorer areas, it is still a sign that the left could struggle to get the two-thirds majority in the convention necessary for any radical amendments to the status quo, unless substantial popular pressure is maintained.
The lack of legitimacy enjoyed by political parties per se is a hindrance to the left, since the popular movement lacks the mass parties of yesteryear. This means it lacks political coherence, national networks or a large pool of well-known, charismatic and trusted candidates. While this was an advantage during the protests, this will now impact on its ability to mobilize voters around candidates who must embody the changes being demanded.
In lieu of mass parties, and faced with an electoral system built around lists, the popular movement will probably have to ensure representation through a joint list of social movement candidates signed up to a common constitutional program.
Perhaps this could follow the model of the Bolivian Movement Towards Socialism (MAS). This new movement could include some of the political parties, but it would raise the perennial problem of the Chilean popular movement: should they aim for political purity or opt for a broad church?
The question is whether there is popular backing for a more radical approach. Although the polls show huge backing for a new constitution, there may be substantial disagreement over the detail. There is time pressure since the lists will need to be agreed before the April election. Fortunately the centrists also face a dilemma since the protests over the last year have evaporated the center ground. It is unlikely that many candidates from existing political parties will be elected at all.
We are most likely to see a whole range of new political figures, but then the question will be ensuring their loyalty to their rhetoric once they are sworn in. We cannot be naïve about the malign influences that will encircle this process; temptations will no doubt be offered.
A more egalitarian economy and political system
Today, all the signs are that social pressure will continue to play an important role in the outcome of the convention. The social movement will have to continue its mobilizations in order to tip the balance, but this will depend greatly upon its ability to work together and articulate common demands. As Allende said many years ago, organization and popular consciousness are the “principal means” of victory for working people.
The popular movement developed dozens of demands during 2019 and pre-COVID 2020, and these indicate what el pueblo wants from the process. The most important issues that the new constitution must resolve are: reforming the institutions of the state; redefining the role of the state in the economy (nationalization of mining, especially) and in protecting the environment; beefing up the state’s role in education, healthcare and social protection; strengthening the rights of workers, women, Indigenous peoples and sexual minorities; and finally, deciding how the state will provide and ensure justice, including reform of the military and the police.
There is a massive social majority in favor of change, but this program presents a huge challenge to the vested interests of the Chilean elite, as well as those of transnational business — particularly mining and agribusiness — and the vast network of sub-contracted services — and corruption — that they fund. Some of the social issues run counter to the beliefs of the Catholic and Evangelical churches, or the interests of white settler landowners in the Mapuche regions of Chile.
The United States in particular will also be concerned at how Chile’s new constitution will reflect on the regional balance of left-right forces. We can therefore expect substantial foreign pressure on the process, including lobbying of the members of the convention, media campaigns and the like in order to limit the potential damage done to foreign interests.
Still, it is a hopeful indication that the right-wing spend on the recent referendum was six times that spent by their opponents, and yet utterly failed to dent the “approve” vote.
Yet, despite these challenges, the scale of popular support amid institutional decay means that the new constitution is likely to implement important measures that will transform Chile’s future. Among the most likely changes are the nationalization of mining industries and the introduction of new environmental rules. We can expect major reforms to the Labor Code allowing for much greater recognition and enforcement of workers’ rights, as well as extending recognition of indigenous rights to language and culture, and perhaps some political autonomy.
The new constitution is also likely to lead to real changes to the Carabineros and the military, including greater civilian control over training and recruitment. Since education and the pensions system have been at the core of popular discontent for many years, it is likely that these will be nationalized too. The new constitution will also reform political institutions including electoral laws.
Whatever the exact contours of what is to come, we are sure to witness the birth of a more egalitarian economy and political system.
The Chilean people have lost their fear
But there will also be important cultural and social changes from this victory. We can expect the state’s role in supporting culture and art to grow. With everything up for debate, no doubt a further reassessment of the past will occur, which will probably be most noticeable in relation to those people and organizations that took up arms against the dictatorship.
Up until now they have been officially condemned, with many still unable to visit Chile because they are wanted for “terrorism.” This travesty will no doubt end, since el pueblo has now condemned the system that justified this stance. It is also highly likely that we will see growing demands for justice for the Mapuche and for rural campesinos who lost their lands after the coup.
The role of women in Chile will most likely also be transformed, and we can expect far more female participation in politics and social life, in a reflection of their mass participation in the protest movement.
Perhaps the most important issue is that the Chilean people have lost their fear and have taken center stage once again. Chile has truly awoken from its long coma, and it is finally taking its first steps towards a future free from the chains with which Pinochet and his henchmen sought to bind the country for eternity.
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