On October 25, 2020, with a participation of the electoral roll at over 50%, 78% of Chilean voters agreed to a new constitution for their country. Additionally, 79% of voters agreed that the new text should be drafted by way of a constitutional convention. The strength of this electoral outcome is the result of a process that began after the 2019 protests, and as a consequence of a political process that this article will attempt to explain.
The Chilean Constitution dates from the return to democracy in 1980, and has been extensively revised since then. Among the criticisms levied against it is that it lacks the legitimacy of origin and presents a democratic deficit when establishing high quorums to carry out any reform. Critics call this “authoritarian enclaves.”
A 2005 reform introduced specific changes demanded by citizens, but the pressure for more reforms continued in the ensuing years, when presidential candidates, such as Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle or Jorge Arrate, promised a “new Constitution” that would expand social rights. Meanwhile, in 2016, Michelle Bachelet (ending her second government) promoted a constituent process through which citizens participated in discussions for a new Constitution. The conclusions from these efforts were published in a report presented to Congress a few days before the change of government. The report did not receive further consideration due to the decision by the incoming president’s government to not include debate on the report on the parliamentary agenda.
In 2019, Chile was shaken by various social protests that took place throughout the country. The crisis began when, on the recommendation of a panel of experts from Public Transport, the government of President Sebastián Piñera chose to increase the price of metro tickets by 30 pesos, up to a maximum of 830 pesos (the equivalent of $1.17 USD). In protest, students began to carry out what were labelled as “massive evasions” in the subway by entering the platforms without paying.
The situation worsened, and violence took over Santiago’s streets: fires in metro and bus stations, looting, and attacks on hundreds of public facilities. Faced with these acts of aggression, the government decreed a state of emergency, deploying the military and ordering a curfew.
President Piñera ultimately conceded the issue, and suspended the subway fare increase, stating that he had listened “with humility” to the voice of the people. However, none of the measures dampened the extent of the protests. The next day, cities including Santiago, Valparaíso, and Concepción woke up to severe damage to buildings and public spaces, in addition to strikes in ports and roadblocks, in a series of violent events over several days that claimed the lives of 18 people.
To address this situation, the President announced a new series of reforms in an attempt to respond to the social outbreak, recognizing that problems had accumulated over many decades and the different governments did not and were not able to recognize the magnitude of the situation.
The protesters’ claims laid bare the inequality and poor access to health, education, and
pension—all services controlled by the private sector. In terms of inequality, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), in 2017 the wealthiest 1% of the country owned 26.5% of the country’s wealth, while 50% of the lowest-income households had access to only 2.1% of this wealth.
Although Chilean economic growth produced a significant increase in the middle class, many of its members bear a high cost of living, with little probability of experiencing upward social mobility on account of low pensions, high debt levels, high dependency on credit, and low salaries. In this context, the rise in the subway fares was the spark that lit the unrest. For many, the 1980 Constitution is one of the obstacles to providing a comprehensive response to citizen demands for greater equality and for State participation in providing basic services such as education, health, and a pension system.
Confronted with social and political pressure, including from members of the ruling party, President Piñera raised the possibility of carrying out structural constitutional reforms. On November 10, 2019, he approved a process for establishing new Constitution, through a Constituent Convention with a ratifying plebiscite. Two days later, 14 opposition parties (RD, PCCh, PS, PDC, PPD, PEV, PR, PI, PRO, FRVS, Comunes, PL, CS, and PH) issued a joint statement calling instead for a Constituent Assembly.
Finally, the political forces agreed on a plebiscite with two ballots: one with the question, “Do you want a New Constitution?” with the answers “Approve” or “Reject,” and a second with the question, “What kind of body should write the New Constitution?” with the answers “Mixed Constitutional Convention” or “Constitutional Convention.”
The difference in the procedure is fundamental. A constitutional convention involves 155 assembly members specially elected to draft the new text, while a mixed constitutional convention is made up in equal parts of members elected specially for it and of parliamentarians of the two Chambers of Congress in office.
As noted above, the outcome of the plebiscite was that a substantial majority of Chileans approved the drafting of a new constitution for Chile by way of a constitutional convention. In the immediate future, in April next year Chileans will elect their representatives to the constitutional convention. In addition, it was established that a plebiscite mandatory for all Chilean citizens to accept or reject the proposal of a new constitution was to be held no later than August 2020.
Political reactions in Chile following the referendum are currently being felt. We will follow closely whether President Piñera’s government and his coalition will participate actively and decisively in this process to ensure that the new draft brings stability and future development to the country.