Chile at a turning point in its history


Chile is today at a key moment in its history. On September 4, the approximately 19 million inhabitants of the country will vote in a referendum on a draft new socially progressive Constitution which aims to definitively turn the pinochetist page. At the time these lines are written, the polls announce a rejection of the text.

To understand this crucial political sequence, it is necessary to return to three major interconnected facts: mass social mobilizations of the year 2019; the launch in 2020 of a process of constitutional reform ; and the election in 2021 of a centre-left president who had been one of the emblematic figures of the social protests of the past decade.

From trickle-down pseudo-theory to the “social explosion” of 2019

In recent years, a large part of Chilean society has been desperately seeking an alternative to the dictatorial legacy of Augusto Pinochet embodied in the 1980 Constitution – even if it has been amended several times – and, beyond that, in the current model of society.

When the General Pinochet seized power in 1973, he aims to transform society in depth to eliminate all traces of progressive reformism, by giving it a "Subsidiary State" whose role boils down to intervening only temporarily in economic sectors, where private initiative cannot do so because of the limits specific to it or the low level of profitability of the activity. It sets up a neoliberal system that gives a central place to markets, privatizations and large economic groups, weakly taxed. This model is based on the trickle-down theory who considers that if the conditions are met to allow the prosperity of large fortunes and companies, the rest of society will benefit in the long term.

Although the new economic measures are causing rapid growth, social inequalities are widening due to the inequitable redistribution of wealth. Even today, 1% of the population holds more than a quarter of the GDP, which makes Chile one of the most unequal states of the 34 that make up the OECD. Moreover, the state leaves the private sector to manage the pension, health and education systems, further aggravating inequalities.

Despite the return of democracy in 1990, the Concerted governments (alliance of center and left parties which dominated the political life of the country from 1990 to 2010) do not modify the socio-economic foundations inherited from the dictatorship.

From the 1990s, the unions organized strikes and demanded better wage conditions. Then, during the 2000s and 2010s, young people mobilized to demand free, quality education. All of these demands lead to a larger movement known as " social explosion ". From October 2019 to March 2020, demonstrations spread to all regions of Chile, threatening to rock the right-wing government of Sebastian Piñera (right-wing liberal, president from 2010 to 2014 then from 2018 to 2022).

The implementation of the constitutional process

To avoid the fall, Piñera accepts one of the key demands of the movement: to launch a process intended to replace the 1980 Constitution.

On October 26, 2020, a referendum is organized. The Chilean population confirmed at 78% its aspiration for a new social pact and elects a few months later a Constituent Assembly of 155 members. This Constituent Assembly, which includes an equal number of women (77) and men (77) and a president, is dominated by the left and members of various social movements, and reserves 17 seats for representatives of the "original people" of Chile, that is to say to the peoples and cultures settled in the current territory of Chile before the arrival in the XVIe century of European colonizers. Work begins in July 2021.

Ten months later, a proposed constitutional text is filed.

The text focuses on the social rights of marginalized groups (women, indigenous, disabled) and aspires to guarantee universal rights related to freedom of expression, protection of the environment, access to water and to health care.

With regard to women's rights, the text guarantees the right to unrestricted abortion and establishes gender parity in all branches of government and public administrations.

In terms of environmental rights, this means guaranteeing protection and access to the land, water and air resources of the country. The right to equitable access to water is guaranteed for all, while Pinochet had completely privatized this resource.

On social issues, the charter proposes the establishment of a public health care system and a national education system. It also plans to create a plurinational state granting indigenous communities territorial guarantees as well as cultural and linguistic recognition.

It is proposed to decentralize the State to give more autonomy to the regions and to replace the Senate with a Chamber of Regions. Legal pluralism is also provided for in order to allow Indian communities to have their own judicial system. In short, it is a progressive, ambitious and maximalist text composed of 388 articles; which would make it, if adopted, the longest constitution in the world.

Arm wrestling between old and new Chile

In full negotiation of the new text, Chile is faced with another fundamental issue: the conquest of presidential power. The second round of the presidential election, at the end of 2021, pits two candidates from non-traditional parties with diametrically opposed societal projects against each other.

Antonio Kast, lawyer and businessman, founder of the Republican Party (extreme right), nostalgic for Pinochet and opposed to the adoption of a new Constitution, campaigns on the theme of security, order, the repression of crime and the fight against immigration. He believes that abortion should be prohibited in all circumstances, supports the reduction of corporate tax and defends funded retirement entrusted to the private sector.

Facing him, Gabriel Boric, former student leader of the 2011 movement, anti-Pinochetist, anti-neoliberal, engaged in the 2019 uprising and ardent defender of the writing of a new Charter. He finds himself at the head of the coalition Dignity Approval composed of left and extreme left political parties and supported by several organizations and progressive social movements (feminists, ecologists). This proposes the creation of a welfare state which will establish a public pension system, an ambitious national health system and a quality public education system. His program also announces a tax reform aimed at increasing the tax on large fortunes and large companies; finally, Boric poses as a defender of the rights of workers, indigenous peoples, women, the LGBT+ community as well as ecology.

The context of social demands in 2019, the loss of legitimacy of traditional parties as well as the mobilization of young people and feminist movements favored Boric, who won the presidential election with 56% of the vote, a score never before achieved. By designating him, a majority of Chileans believe they have voted for a radical change in the model of society and, therefore, for the definitive abandonment of the legacy of Pinochetism.

From euphoria to disenchantment

The honeymoon is short-lived: a few weeks after his induction, Boric sees his popularity rate plummeting. If his election had aroused great expectations among the population, several factors will quickly cause major disappointments.

Primo, the moderation of his speech on the pace of social reforms to adopt: while part of the electorate expects rapid progress in terms of social justice, Boric opts for gradual reforms.

Second, the pledges given by the new president to the financial markets disappointed some of his electorate: the appointment of Mario Marcel as head of the Ministry of Finance is interpreted as a signal favorable to the preservation of budgetary discipline – which, for some, risks hindering the announced socio-economic reforms.

Thirdly, during his campaign, Boric had strongly opposed the deployment of the army in the south – a deployment ordered by Sebastian Pinera who had sent the military to intervene between the mapuche community and the logging companies, which the Mapuches have for years criticized, sometimes violently, for seizing their ancestral lands. After his election, Boric had withdrawn the soldiers from part of the south of the country. But he recently announced their return to this area, prompting some of his followers to accuse him of having betrayed his promises.

In reality, Boric is confronted with the exercise of power: given that he does not hold any majority in neither House (the next parliamentary elections will not take place until 2025), he is obliged to seek alliances and, as a result, arouses the feeling that his policy will not be as reforming as announced.

The disappointment with the government is amplified by the difficult economic situation in the country and a rise in inflation caused by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

Understand the fading enthusiasm for a new Charter

Boric's popularity also suffered from a loss of support for the draft Constitution. Over the past few months, polls predict the victory of the no in the referendum. Several factors explain this shift in public opinion.

First, the rejection campaign led by the conservative sectors of society initiated from the launch of the constitutional process has had its effect.

Moreover, the disagreements and strong tensions that accompanied the debates gave the image of a Constituent Assembly marked by chaos and polarization.

Added to this is the communication deficit of the constituents. During the work, many proposals were discussed. Some were quickly rejected because they were considered too radical, for example the attribution of the executive, legislative and judicial powers of the State to a plurinational assembly of workers and peoples, or the nationalization of pension funds or of all mining companies. . But the population has not always been able to "separate the wheat from the chaff" and tends to consider that the text includes all the proposals discussed, including those that were not retained.

In addition, provisions provided for in the text such as the emergence of "judicial pluralism" (i.e. the possibility for indigenous communities to have access to justice that takes into account the customs, traditions, protocols and regulatory systems of indigenous communities) and the decentralization of the state raise real fears.

And this, all the more so as the disinformation campaign conducted on social networks by the far right, which claims in particular that the adoption of the text would lead to a change of national flag, national anthem and even the name of the country, has had its effect.

The consequences of a rejection

We will therefore know on September 4 whether the new Constitution has been adopted. At this stage, it seems that the text is very likely to be rejected, which will have several consequences.

First, maintaining the current Constitution and its neoliberal model.

Then, a deep disappointment of social movements, which will result in rekindling social discontent in the country.

Finally, it would also be a failure for President Boric, whose political capital depends heavily on the adoption of the project, otherwise he will probably not be able to carry out the ambitious social reforms for which he was elected.

Sebastian Santander, Full Professor, Political Science/International Relations, university of Liege

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Recent articles >

How do I know if my projects will succeed?

outlined-grey clock icon

Recent news >