Chile’s New Constitution Is on a Razor’s Edge – The Future of Social Democracy

When Chileans go to the polls on September 4 to vote for a new constitution, it could mean the dawn of a new era for the Andean state. It all started three years ago with a massive social revolt. In the fall of 2019, people took to the streets to protest against political and economic elite and social inequality in one of Latin America’s wealthiest countries. Chile was paralyzed for months. One of the protesters’ main demands was for a new constitution to replace the neoliberal document adopted under the Pinochet dictatorship. The then right-wing conservative government under Sebastian Piñera finally relented, paving the way for a constitutional process to be worked out in parliament.

On October 25, 2020, approximately 78% of eligible voters took part in a referendum on the drafting of a new constitution. This task was delegated to the so-called Constitutional Convention. In May 2021 there were convention elections, in which established and right-wing parties suffered a setback when left-wing candidates – including many independents – were elected. Representation at the convention was equal, with 17 of the 155 seats allocated to representatives of the indigenous population.

On July 4, 2022, members of the Constitutional Convention submitted Chile’s new draft constitution to the progressive new president, Gabriel Boric. The convention was dissolved after a difficult year of work – a process that also ran into problems. Now a ruthless right-wing campaign means the fate of the constitutional text hangs in the balance. A July 17 poll showed 37 percent in favor of (Apruebo) and 52 percent against (Rechazo) adopting the new constitution.

Some members of the convention sought to cover their tracks with extremist demands, such as the total abolition of state administration. While it is true that these proposals did not win majority support and therefore did not find their way into the text, the seeds of discontent have been sown. In any case, the right, fearing for its privileges, pulled out all the stops in a massive campaign, raising the specter of a “Chilezuela” to sow fears of social and economic decline.

Not revolutionary, but transformative

Needless to say, nothing in the text itself justifies such feverish statements. It’s hardly revolutionary. Instead, it contains a series of distinctive innovations and ideas that would bring about a real transformation of Chile’s current development model towards greater social justice and sustainability.

In keeping with the evolution of Latin American constitutionalism in recent decades, Chile’s draft constitution contains a definition of plurinationality.

If it adopts the draft constitution, Chile will be the first country in the world to establish a parity democracy and thus create the conditions for true equality between the sexes. Specifically, all representative offices at the national, regional and local levels – including self-governing institutions and public enterprises – would be required to have equal representation of men and women. This demand for real equality between women and men is also found in the text, with the adoption of a right to care, a right to a life free from gender-based violence, and the inclusion from a gender perspective in the judicial system and in fiscal and fiscal policies. Politics.

Over the past decades, Chilean feminist organizations and social movements have paved the way for this successful anchoring of parity democracy in the new constitution. Historically, it is the first constitutional convention composed equally of men and women and conferring constitutional status on gender equality and parity.

In line with the evolution of Latin American constitutionalism in recent decades, Chile’s draft constitution contains a definition of plurinationality, recognizing the existence and self-determination of peoples and nations that have long resided in the country. It also implies the right to fully exercise collective and individual rights, the recognition of a historical debt and the non-recognition of the indigenous population. This was the result of the long indigenous struggle for recognition, as well as the fact that the ten recognized indigenous groups were guaranteed 17 representatives in the convention.

Also noteworthy is the clear recognition of environmental concerns. For example, the rights of nature and the special duty of the state to care for environmental commons, such as glaciers or the seas, are enshrined, and the right to adequate and clean water is guaranteed for all. In a country that has suffered from water shortages since the privatization of water rights, this represents an important step on the way to a more socially just society.

At the same time, the integration of social rights, stronger participation and the fight against corruption are decisive steps towards resolving Chile’s social and political crisis. As a “social and democratic state governed by the rule of law”, which guarantees the right to health, education, social security and housing, Chile would lay the foundations for a recovery from the neoliberal hangover and embark on a path of sustainable and socially balanced development.

Points of contention

The strongest doubts aroused by the draft constitution certainly concern the reorganization of the political system. The new constitution provides for the replacement of the bicameral congress by an asymmetrical body. More authority would be given to the lower house and the senate would be replaced by a chamber of regions. Chile would thus create an unprecedented political structure, associating an asymmetrical bicameral system with a presidential regime. It remains to be seen how this would work in practice.

If the new constitution is adopted, it will undoubtedly set a positive precedent in that large-scale social and political crises can be resolved in a democratic, peaceful and institutional way.

Moreover, the new constitution could exacerbate the established tendency of the partisan landscape towards fragmentation. For example, no agreement could be found on the thresholds of parliamentary representation. Even the term “political party” is not mentioned in the text, only political organizations. This stems from the high number of independent convention members and their distrust of established parties. However, this could mean that in the future it will be even more difficult to form stable majorities in government.

Prospects for a progressive agenda

On September 4, Chileans will have the opportunity to vote for the proposed project. The result will not only be important for the future of Chile, but will also send a signal to progressive forces throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

If the new constitution is adopted, it will undoubtedly set a positive precedent in that large-scale social and political crises can be resolved in a democratic, peaceful and institutional way. In a world where democracy is increasingly under threat, this would send a strong signal that solving the problems of democracy requires a deepening of democracy.

But a totally different scenario would open up if the draft constitution were rejected. This would represent a historic failure for progressive social and political forces and would seriously weaken the new government, wasting its political capital. Chilean institutions are said to be plunged into uncertainty because, while in the 2020 referendum 80% of voters rejected the old constitution, in the last referendum in 2022 the constitution drafted by the most diverse democratic body of the history of the republic had been rejected. The consequences for Chile could be an upsurge in social unrest and violence and a surge for the far right.

The scenarios – approve or reject – should be seen as a challenge or a warning to progressive forces in Chile and the region that democracy can only be deepened with political clout – and that means forging lasting alliances.

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