Chile’s Constitutional Plebiscite: Res Judicata?

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Despite being the southernmost country in the world with quite particular characteristics in geography, economy, history, social structure and politics, and although thus often considered as a rather self-referential construct, Chile has also long been considered a model for both developmental progress and reform attempts in the Global South and the Pacific region. Thus its current attempt of profoundly reforming its constitution – originally stemming, in substantial parts, from the Pinochet era (1974-1990) – is crucial not only for the nation’s future, but also observed quite closely by other countries. This includes China with which an improved free trade agreement came into force in March 2019 destined to increase bilateral ties and influence.

Yet after years of debate and initial enthusiasm, the victory of the left under Gabriel Boric Font in Chile’s November 2021 regional, parliamentary and presidential elections seems to have changed the situation of the constitutional reform process and especially its public approval ecosystem. Shortly before the decisive referendum will be held on 4 September the prevailing mood about the renewal of the constitution now is skepticism. Is Chile’s 2022 national plebiscite about the new constitution already decided? There is some evidence, as the latest polls show.

Indeed, most recent surveys indicate that the results of the plebiscite to approve or reject the proposal for the new constitution drawn by Chile’s Constitutional Convention which worked on the text from 4 July 2021 to 4 July 2022 seems to be highly predictable, i.e. res judicata. This is different from the highly volatile scenario that was observed until the end of June 2022 where there was a high percentage of undecided and trends that showed stark variations, with permanent rises and falls between the percentages of approval and rejection. This volatility is no longer observed. On the contrary, timely data shows that the choice seems to be defined for the large majority of citizens – with a substantial margin favoring the camp that will vote against embracing the new constitution. Notwithstanding possible final surprises, there are several elements that support this expectation.

First is the decrease in the percentage of the undecided. The undecided went from 30% in June to roughly 16% in August 2022. It is probable that this shift has increased the camp of the rejectionists. Second, data shows that the approval camp has consolidated a downward trend that initiated in March. Over the past weeks it has only managed to rise 2 percentage points, from 28% to 30%, while the rejection camp has consolidated in a bandwidth that oscillates between 44% and 46%. This is remarkable given that shortly before the start of the work of the Constitutional Convention in July 2021, the Apruebo camp featured 78% versus 22% of the rejectionists. This is a huge loss of support within just one year. As Pulso Cuidadano, the opinion barometer of the opinion research enterprise Activa in Santiago de Chile summarized in August 2022,

“With 21 days to go before the Constitutional Plebiscite, 44.3% of the population will vote rejection (-0.1 points), 33.9% approve (+4 points), 15.9% are undecided, 3.1% will vote blank and 2.7% will not vote. It is projected that between 60.9% and 67.3% of the electoral roll will vote on September 4, 2022. The point estimate is a voter turnout of 64.1% which would imply 9,664,115 voters. In our electoral forecast 21 days before voting, 56.7% would vote rejection and 43.3% would vote approval, in a scenario of 100% of voters. In a more realistic voter scenario (64.1% of the electoral roll), 53.5% would vote rejection and 46.5% would vote approval.”

This prediction has a high level of probability since over the past months the variability in the voter polls has significantly decreased. All statistics show that the evolution of approval and rejection which varied strongly over the year of the Constitutional reform Convention is giving way to less sharp curves and now shows a marked trend. The variability that was previously observed can be explained as related to the good or bad performance of the spokespersons for the respective choices. Yet shortly before the vote, all statistical curves mark a stable tendency towards more rejection than approval.

What are the reasons for this situation?

First, the dissemination of the text of the reformed constitution seems to have impacted the negative trend noticeably. Since the final text was released, approval has steadily decreased. The government’s campaign to spread the text failed to re-enchant the widowers of approval. Most voters are not convinced that the text fulfills the purpose of renewal as it was promised, including social, economic and political reform and a general passage from a neoliberal experiment to a modern welfare state. Since the beginning of the final phase of the Boric government advertising the new text, questioned by the Comptroller General of the Republic, approval has remained stable in a bandwidth of 2%. This indicates that there is a formed opinion, which has not been modified by the actions of the government.

Second, there is the difference in what to choose when the vote is about a text and not about a politician or a political party. Unlike a choice of faces, this plebiscite is about a choice of content. In the first scenario – voting for a politician or a party –, the result always has a higher level of uncertainty, because until the last minute it is possible for a candidate to make a serious mistake or to be dragged out of the sun. In this case, it is a text that is widely known and has no personalized, clearly identifiable face to be associated with, which suggests that elements that generate uncertainty in the usual election of positions do not apply in this case.

Third, this is compulsory voting. As it comes with automatic registration, all the respondents of the polls are considered as valid cases for the calculation of the indicators, and the risk of trend indicators being wrong decreases. Unless a catastrophe (such as the preceding Covid-19 crisis which hit Chile hard) occurs, participation in the vote will increase sharply compared to the last election. Nevertheless if this will not be the case, the country will face a deep political and institutional legitimacy crisis.

What is the outlook?

The available analysis shows that it is unlikely that the approval effort for the new constitution will succeed. This may increase the general uncertainty in the country because the way forward to replace a constitution that would have been socially abolished is not clear, and because the government of President Boric will be severely hit by rejection. The only chance that the approval camp has at this point is that all the undecided voters end up leaning towards the “accept” position, added to some serious problems within the rejectionist electoral fringe. Considering that the main political leaders and influencers have already shown their preference, a last minute change does not seem likely. The doubts about a leadership capable of getting the process back on track after a potential rejection suggests that a long road lies ahead where we will see a strong political struggle to determine the next step. To know what the new, post-plebiscite constitutional process will be like, which body will manage it, who will lead it and how it will be ratified, are among the aspects to be defined.

Overall, Chile seems not to have come out of its state of democratic adolescence, after electing Michelle Bachelet for the second time supporting her ambitious program of reforms that did not materialize, and as a consequence ending choosing Sebástian Piñera’s return to the presidential palace La Moneda. Now, after a strong shift to the left since the election of the Constituent Convention and an initially overwhelming triumph of approval, the country may be once again in doubt about its desired future development model.

About the authors:

Miguel Zlosilo, MA, was the former Chief of Research of the Secretary of Communications in the Sebastián Piñera II Government (2018-21). Zlosilo is a Sociologist (Universidad de Chile) and holds a Master in Advanced Statistics (Universidad Complutense de Madrid). He is the founder of Artool, a data communication company in Santiago de Chile, and the co-author of Chile in Transition: Prospects and Challenges of Latin America’s Forerunner of Development (Springer International, 2015).  

Roland Benedikter, Dr. Dr. Dr., is Research Professor of Multidisciplinary Political Analysis in residence at the Willy Brandt Centre of the University of Wroclaw, Poland; Co-Head of the Center for Advanced Studies of Eurac Research Bozen-Bolzano, Italy; member of the “Future Circle” of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) for the German Federal Government Berlin; and regular member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts. Benedikter served eight years in European politics (1995-2003) and also holds the UNESCO Chair in Interdisciplinary Anticipation and Global-Local Transformation at the Center for Advanced Studies of Eurac Research Bozen-Bolzano. Together with Miguel Zlosilo and Katja Siepmann, he is co-author of Chile in Transition: Prospects and Challenges of Latin America’s Forerunner of Development (Springer International, 2015).