Constitutional referendum in Chile: a late end to dictatorship


On 25 October, one year on from the mass demonstrations in the country, the Chilean electorate voted by an overwhelming majority of more than 78 percent in favour of a new constitution and of 79 percent for an assembly comprised solely of citizens to write this constitution.

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Graffiti an einer Wand in Chile

On Sunday 29 October, one year on from the mass demonstrations in the country, the Chilean electorate voted by an overwhelming majority of more than 78 percent in favour of a new constitution and of 79 percent for an assembly comprised solely of citizens to write this constitution. The election victory was not unexpected, as every single opinion poll predicted it. The only uncertainty was how high the approval rate would be.

Some 14.8 million people, including 380,000 migrants and around 60,000 Chileans living abroad, were entitled to vote on 25 October and a good half of them made use of their franchise. This made turnout higher than in any election since compulsory voting was scrapped in 2012 – despite the pandemic and a scare campaign mounted by the opposition, spreading fear of violence and infection in the context of the referendum. It was in the socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods that turnout was most notably higher than in the last parliamentary elections. Votes for a new constitution were particularly prevalent in communities at the highest risk from environmental problems and water shortages. In Santiago, only three districts that are home to the (super) rich elite voted against constitutional change. The referendum results reflect a deep social gulf within Chilean society.

Political disenchantment as an influential factor

Voter turnout in Chile has fallen off a cliff since the first post-authoritarian elections in 1989, particularly since compulsory voting was abolished in 2012. Participation in the presidency and parliamentary elections fell from 87 percent (1989) to 49 percent in the most recent elections of 2017. In the last round of municipal elections, only a worrying 36 percent of those entitled to do so opted to make use of their vote. Most of all, young people and those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, who no longer felt that their interests were being represented by the outdated party system, stayed away from the ballot boxes in their droves.

The Chilean political parties – irrespective of their ideological positioning – have long been deep in crisis. The people’s disenchantment with them can largely be attributed to the fact that most citizens see the powers currently represented in Parliament as part of a cross-cutting redistributive coalition which, along with big business, has shared out lucrative sectors of the economy and revenue from privatised public services (such as the education and pension system) and goods (railways and water) between themselves. It is not only the right-wing parties, with their traditional links to entrepreneurship, that come in for this criticism, but also the centrist ones and much of the left wing. Investigations into illegal forms of political influence and the sale of public office usually peter out with no results or by handing down pathetically low fines, as in the case of the chemicals and mining firm SQM (Sociedad Química y Minera).

The high number of votes cast in favour of constitutional change can certainly also be imputed to the anti-systemic nature of a constitutional referendum, which has awakened hopes in many citizens of being able to smash elite cartels and political cronyism.  

More involvement and representation from the pressure of the streets

Even the concerns of some election pollsters that the loopholes of the parliamentary agreement of 15/11/2019 would have a negative impact on the turnout rate of younger and more left-leaning voters did not materialise. The social movements that mobilised for several weeks, paralysing public life to call for structural reform, were initially somewhat sceptical about the compromise brokered in Congress with no citizen participation.

Criticism focused particularly on the fact that the women’s movements’ demands for equal representation on the constitutional committee, adequate involvement for representatives of Chile’s ten indigenous peoples and increased autonomy for civil society within the participation process were not included in the compromise. Women account for 52 percent of the Chilean population, but hold just 25 percent of seats in Parliament. According to the most recent census, 12.8 percent of respondents stated that they belong to an ethnic group, but just 2.5 percent of members of Parliament are from an indigenous background.

Since then, however, the deal has been improved for the better – the involvement of women and independent candidates has been bolstered, and more recently, after long debates, an additional 24 seats have been added to assure the participation of ethnic groups. Even so, spokespersons for the principal civil society movements have declared the election result a victory for the pressure of the streets and announced that they will fight for civil society autonomy and involvement in the constitutional process to be strengthened further. According to their analysis, without constant mobilisation, the constitutional process is at high risk of being turned into a vanity fair for celebrities without any grass-roots experience and/or a clone of the parliament, considered as barely representative of the diversity of civil society demands

Violence, coronavirus and bots: a scare campaign

Furthermore, the attempts of opponents of constitutional change to manipulate public opinion or scare people off from voting by means of a discourse of fear of infection and violence proved largely unsuccessful. Election broadcasts and the social network feeds of the ‘no’ campaign repeatedly tried to link the other side with violent riots. In the wake of the overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations on 18 October to mark the anniversary of the mass protests, two churches in the vicinity of the emblematic Plaza de la Dignidad in the capital city of Santiago went up in flames. Although the circumstances have still not been fully explained and a naval serviceman appears to have been involved in the act of arson against one of the churches, right-wing politicians tried to exploit the violence to keep undecided voters at home on election day or to encourage people to vote against change.

Arguments based around infection risk were also brought out in an attempt to stem popular enthusiasm for voting. Research published by the Ciper journalist team also clearly shows the dominance of representatives of “Rechazo” (opponents of constitutional reform) in the control of the social networks. Just 921 Twitter accounts generated around 391,000 tweets between 18/10/2019 and 13/10/2020 with the hashtag #rechazo. And although the leaders of the pro-reform “Apruebo” campaign pointed out time and again that bots do not vote, public opinion on the social networks was disproportionately dominated by the spin doctors and bots of the ‘no’ campaign.

(V)Bictory, the power of the blue pen

Chile is one of the countries of Latin America that has been hardest hit by the pandemic. To date, almost half a million people have been infected and nearly 14,000 citizens have died with the virus. Almost half of Chile’s municipalities are still in strict quarantine. Amid the specific health and safety measures, there have been many long queues of patient and mostly cheerful citizens outside polling stations.

Despite the challenges thrown up by the public health crisis, the vote and count processes both went without a hitch. This owes much to the well-organised local administrations and the discipline of citizens acting as polling officers with exemplary conscientiousness. The applicable health and social distancing rules were communicated clearly via all social networks and the media: voters were obliged to bring and use facemasks, alcohol hand sanitiser and their own ballpoint pens with blue ink.

The blue Bic-brand pen quickly developed cult status and became a metaphor for the non-violent yet sovereign power of the people. Trendsetters on social media hailed a “Bictory” and texted that “we will defeat the constitution of the dictator with this pen”. But there was a cloud to this silver lining. Human rights lawyers reported that members of the Mapuche population in particular had been prevented from exercising their right to vote. This was the case with the Machi (religious authority) Francisca Linconao, for instance. Although there were no criminal or other objective reasons for this, she was not allowed to cast her vote.  

End of the boys’ club: a constitutional committee with feminist DNA

The unequivocal outcome of the constitutional referendum of 25 October is an historical milestone for Chilean civil society, which brought public life to a standstill across the country in October 2019 for several weeks, to demand root and branch social and political reform. This movement was directly triggered by a small fare increase on the Santiago Metro, which led to a rebellion of schoolchildren jumping the barriers in a joint act of protest. The protest movement rapidly spread across the country, with large swathes of the population becoming involved, right up to the middle classes. Millions of people, from Arica in the north to Magallanes in the Chilean Antarctic, took to the streets in cities and villages to protest against social inequality, corruption and the unwillingness of the elite to enact reform. “It’s not about 30 pesos, it’s about 30 years” was the slogan that very quickly culminated in central calls for a new constitution.

The constitution that is valid at the moment dates back to the time of the military dictatorship and principally reflects the interests of the economic elite. This is now set to change. While Chile’s previous constitutions (1825, 1833 and 1980) were written exclusively by the political, economic and military elite – almost exclusively boys’ clubs – behind closed doors, the new constitution will be set down by citizens, not members of parliament or experts. This is a first in Chilean history. There has never, moreover, been a constitutional committee anywhere in the world with an equal number of women sitting on it. Chile’s powerful feminist movement was able to push through its calls for parity in early March following mass demonstrations. The Argentinian daily newspaper Página 12 dubbed it a constitutional committee with feminist DNA.

The long and winding road to a new social contract

On 25 October, just over a year after the onset of the mass protests and almost 50 years on from Salvador Allendes’ election to president of the country, Chilean civil society won a major stage victory. On the road to a new constitution that will lay down the infrastructure of a new, fairer Chile, however, there are still many obstacles to overcome and challenges to face. The first of these will be the elections for the 155 members of the constitutional committee in April 2021, who will then have one year to author the text of a new constitution. This will require further reforms to strengthen the autonomous participation of civil society. Although in the meantime, 24 additional seats have been added to the 155 members of the Constitutional Assembly in order to guarantee adequate indigenous representation, not all indigenous organisations are happy with this mechanism. Electoral rules discriminate against independents, who still face higher entrance barriers than party members.

Many experts consider that these elections, which will determine the composition of the constitutional body, will be of decisive importance to the quality and content of the future constitution. The citizens’ movement is characterised by its extreme diversity and lack of connection to the political parties. Given the voting system (proportional representation in constitutions with more than one elected member), however, tactical voting alliances are vital to ensure the highest possible percentage of elected representatives taking up the cause of the protest movement and able to push through their demands in comprehensive structural reforms. As each individual article of the constitution requires the approval of a majority of two thirds before the entire final text can be submitted for the approval of a further referendum, the negotiation process will be complex and require the members of the constitutional committee to possess extensive dialogue and conflict management skills. The list of points of contention is a very long one. It will take agreement in these central fields of conflict for the key demands of the citizens’ movement to be channelled into a new Magna Carta.

Strengthening the political and human rights, State reform and reconciling social and ecological justice

Because of huge breaches of human rights by the police and military during the mass protests and which have still not been fully worked through, a key priority will be to strengthen rule of law control mechanisms over the police and military. Feminists are calling for a bottom-up reform of the traditional family and role models and to increase political and sexual self-determination for women and sexual minorities. A further raft of demands calls for fundamental reforms of political institutions, in order to democratise political competition and gear it increasingly to majority principles. The current constitution makes it possible for small blocking minorities to hold off urgently needed reforms.

One central point in discussions will be redefining the role of the State. On this, environmental movements and trade unions agree: to improve protection for public and common property and the autonomy of the State against economic interests, regulatory and control capacities over the State, particularly in the field of taxation, will also need to be bolstered. There are strong regional voices also calling for a decentralisation of State functions. In practice, this would mean that the political decision-making capacity would move increasingly to the municipal and provincial levels. Representatives of indigenous peoples are additionally calling for the right to territorial autonomy and the recognition of Chile as a plurinational State.

A further major issue in the present Chilean constitution lies in its excessive protection of private property which, unlike in Germany, for instance, carries no social obligations. Public and common goods such as water, which has been almost fully privatised in Chile, can only be protected or provided if this goes hand in hand with the modernisation of State functions and the economic constitution. The principal demands of the mass protests of October 2019 concern social inequality: a fair pension system, access to public education and healthcare and an end to the privatisation of public services. The environmental movements also point out that the calls for social justice can only be successfully implemented if questions of environmental justice are also included.

This is most directly apparent from looking at the water situation. According to a study by the World Resources Institute, Chile is one of the 18 countries of the world under the greatest water stress. During the pandemic, more than a million Chilean nationals were left without access to water in sufficient quantity and quality. The current government guarantees the private ownership of water rights which, under the principle of supply and demand, can be sold on the open market to the highest bidder. One of the main demands of the environmental movements, this is set to change under the new constitution.

In accordance with the will of the citizens, the new constitution will be feminist, plurinational, social and ecological. As every single article needs a two-thirds majority, a complex negotiation process looms ahead. The historical election victory of 25 October 2020 has paved the way for a new constitution that will allow the people of Chile to emerge from the long shadow of the Pinochet dictatorship. The road to a new social contract that unites the principles of social and ecological justice will, however, be a long and winding one.