The Chilean Pendulum: Perspectives after Chile’s Constitutional Referendum
The triumph of the “reject” vote in the September 4 referendum on the text of Chile’s envisaged new constitution opens up another phase in the globe’s southernmost nation’s apparently endless zig-zag transition to a modern welfare state and a properly contextualized democracy.
Zigzagging into the future
The plebiscite of 4 September on the new constitution was not the first, but the second one in just three years. It manifested Chile’s zig-zag course with regard to its democratic development.
In October 2020, a first referendum on the issue ended with the win of “approve” with a higher margin than expected, obtaining 78% approval versus 22% rejection. In September 2022 though, 62% of the votes were for “reject”, while approval only obtained 38%. Obviously these were not comparable plebiscites, because the first was about the principal will to change Pinochet’s constitution (slightly reformed by former president Ricardo Lagos at the start of the 2000s). People answered with a clear “yes”. The second one this September was about the concretely proposed new constitutional text drawn up by Chile’s specifically appointed Constitutional Convention (2021-22). People said very clearly “no”. There is no doubt that the demand to have a new Magna Charta persists in a large majority of Chileans. Yet the serious shortcomings of the work of the Constitutional Convention resulted in a crushed defeat that just a few months ago seemed impossible.
In essence and in the bigger picture, the result confirms the notorious pendulum movement in the Chilean political system: from the strongly leftist presidency of Michelle Bachelet Chile passed to the strongly conservative one of Sebástian Piñera, from Piñera back to Bachelet, from Bachelet back to Piñera and recently from Piñera to strongly leftist Boric again. We should remember that in November 2021 Boric won against the right-wing representative José Antonio Kast by a clear 12% margin (56% vs. 44%) with a respectable 56% voter turnout. Yet, slighlty more than half a year later, a disaster-like defeat followed, this time with a turnout of 85% due to the obligatory voting format. This new dramatic turn is typical of Chile’s recent pendulum-like recent democratic history, and this must be explained.
A broad rejection throughout the country
The vote was overwhelmingly clear not only in numbers, but also in the geographical evenness throughout the nation’s territory. The rejection triumphed in all the regions of the country, from Arica to Punta Arenas. It was expected that the Santiago Metropolitan Region, the most populous in the country, would be the bastion of approval, however, rejection triumphed here also by more than 10 percentage points, admittedly the lowest by region but still a very clear margin by otherwise often tight Chilean standards. The same is valid for Valparaíso, where the left obtained large voter segments, but the rejection nevertheless won by 58% to 42%. The largest margin was observed in the Ñuble Region, a traditional bastion of the right, where the rejection tally reached 74% of the votes.
Results of the Constitutional Referendum of 4 September 2022 (Reject versus Approve)
Arica and Parinacota Region, 66.79% vs. 33.21%
Tarapaca Region = 68.23% vs. 31.77%
Antofagasta Region = 63.19% vs. 36.81%
Atacama Region = 59.58% vs. 40.42%
Coquimbo Region = 59.88% vs. 40.12%
Valparaíso Region = 57.65% vs. 42.35%
O’Higgins region = 65.52% vs 34.48%
Maule Region = 71.60% vs 28.40%
Ñuble region = 74.26% vs 25.74%
Biobío Region = 69.49% vs 30.51%
La Araucanía Region = 73.70% vs 26.30%
Los Ríos Region = 67.20% vs. 32.80%
Los Lagos Region = 69.40% vs. 30.60%
Aysen Region = 64.11% vs. 35.89%
Region of Magallanes and Chilean Antarctica = 59.92% vs 40.08%
Santiago Metropolitan Region = 55.26% vs. 44.74%
The phenomenon was replicated at the community level. The rejection triumphed even in poor communities, where the right tends to obtain poor results. This confirms that it has not been a victory of specific parties. Only in eight districts approval won, while in the first 2020 plebiscite the situation was the opposite when rejection won in just five districts (Vitacura, Las Condes and Lo Barnechea, Colchane in Tarapacá and La Antártica in Magallanes). Approval only triumphed in the areas of the Valparaíso and Metropolitan regions. It should be noted that no previous survey estimated such an overwhelming victory, despite the fact that all of them proclaimed the rejection option the winner, yet anticipating significantly smaller margins between the yes and no options. Consequently, the outcome of the final huge margin of 24% for the reject came as quite a surprise.
Ten reasons for the result
Many across Chile’s entire political spectrum are now searching for the reasons of such a fiasco. The resounding failure of the work of the Constitutional Convention, and, in part, of the Government of President Boric is due to a mixture of factors. They can be summarized in ten points.
First, there was – what in Chile is called – “Political Maximalism”. The dominant group in the Constitutional Convention, ie. the left, sought to reach the transformational maximum with each rule they elaborated, as they were not able to moderate their expectations. The search for a profound transformation and the absence of clear framework regulations generated a text that represented only part of the population.
Second: Re-foundational Radicalism. The desire to lay the foundations for not less than a “new republic” was consistent with maximalism. The claim to review national symbols and to eliminate the institution of the Senate to create the new “Chamber of the Regions” are two of many examples. Many Chileans said the convention members were more concerned with elaborating the antithesis of Pinochet’s constitution than with constructing a text that would appeal to the majority.
Third, entails the indirect validation of violence. The post-factum legitimation of force as a valid tool in politics was represented in the many attempts to pardon the self-proclaimed “political prisoners of the social uprising” that had occurred in the form of street riots during the work of the Constitutional Convention. The will to get to a new start by insisting on a collective pardon for rioters positioned the conventionalists – in the eyes of the public – closer to the perpetrators than to their victims.
Fourth, exclusion. The policy of de facto excluding marginalized conservative and center minorities and of rejecting popular initiative bills widely supported by the citizenry increased the gap of the Constitutional Convention with those who thought differently. Sect-like behaviors were observed: we are chosen, we have superior values, those who think differently should not participate. At least this was the impression of a notable part of the public.
Fifth, pride. The success of the October 2020 initial referendum and the defeat of the right in the general elections of November 2021 made the victorious left drunken on their recent achievements. They failed to understand that politics remains dynamic and that adherence is subject to performance also and especially for those who have won. Instead, they cultivated a “narcissism” that was not well received by the public.
Sixth, poor communication performance. The poor performance of the constituents, starting with the extremist rhetoric of linguist and activist Elisa Loncón and ending with lawyer, radio and television host Daniel Stingo, among a long list of mistakes, ended up convincing the population that they did not have the necessary skills to generate work that was up to the citizens’ expectations.
Seventh, poorly written text. Doubts about the quality of the proposed final text of the new constitution gradually crossed the borders of the rejection versus approve camps. Substantial questions, including the detection of errors in the final text, permeated the majority of voters, as well as doubts about the number of articles it presented, among other technical aspects.
Eighth, last mile mistakes. What happened during the approval performance in Valparaíso where the group Las Indetectables showed a person who uncovered his butt while another extracted a Chilean flag from there, which means for this group “abort Chile”. The repudiation of the action was transversal, even more so considering that it was a family-dedicated act.
Ninth, in addition to what is described above, it is worth highlighting the good campaign of rejectionists consciously without traditional politicians, but with many constructive messages, including a discourse of integration instead of exclusion. The rejection camp showed the ability to detect the doubts of the population, exacerbate them and capitalize on them.
Tenth, the support and commitment of the Boric Government with the approval camp ended up seriously backfiring. The executive dragged the approval down with its – already now, only half a year in its charge – low popularity. This low approval of the Government has been due to wide-spread insecurity problems and also to repeated miscommunications, such as in the case of the arrest of Mapuche autonomist and movement CAM (Coordinadora Arauco Malleco, „Wallmapu”) leader Héctor Llaitul on August 24, just a few days before the referendum. Boric’s minister of social development, Jeanette Vega, had to resign because calls from her chief of staff to fugitive Llaitul were leaked.
All this came despite noticeable progress in the proposed text of the new constitution. The Constitutional Convention, regardless of all problems, in 2021-22 was also a hub of debate for a wide variety of progressive ideas which would have made the country a forerunner in the Global South, and beyond that, move it closer to European models, while fighting against its notorious inequality problem. For example, Chile has been one of the few countries to propose for the first time to insert “neurorights” or “brain rights” in its constitution; to introduce “linguistic rights” following UNESCO recommendations and debates; to include certain ecological rights; and to discuss the further enshrinement of human rights. Chile was also one of the first countries to make gender equality an absolute priority in the composition of the Constitutional Convention. All this was questioned at once by the negative outcome of the referendum.
Conclusion: Three options how the process of further advancing a socially rejected constitutional reform may continue
After this plebiscite the challenge is clear. It consists in providing continuity to the process and develop a new constitution against all odds, but in more precise, ideologically and politically balanced and better communicated ways. The four key aspects for the further process to finish successfully are:
First, the implementation of a socially broadly validated leadership. In the eyes of a majority of citizens neither the President nor the parties, nor the Congress have the necessary legitimacy to lead the process. It is worth noting the role of civil society organizations that promoted the rejection. Contrary to what happened during the last Piñera II government, when some of Piñera’s ministers were inclined to reject but almost half opted for approval, in the case of the Boric Government the entire Cabinet squared with the contrary vote despite the Government’s pro-approve campaign. This accentuates the risk of a lame duck phenomenon over the coming years, especially with regard to the figure of the President himself.
Second, there will be the need for a re-articulation, re-organization and re-involvement of the center-left and the left. Some leftist parties were left on the path. Now the public wants to see how new pacts are built that allow the neglected ones to join forces in the face of the upcoming constitutional reform process 2.0. It will also be key to know whether the Government initiates a change of cabinet or if power remains distributed among the same actors.
Third, a more constructive definition of the role of the right is needed both institutionally and politically. The right-wing parties were behind the scenes of the triumph of the reject vote. It remains to see what will happen when they come on stage. It will be important to know the role that each party and its leaders will play, but it is intuited that after this vote the conservatives could even maintain the position of keeping the current constitution and abolishing the reform process.
Fourth, the relocation of the social movements. Their role in the triumph of the rejection was more important than that of conservative parties as it resulted to be fundamental, having influenced the opinion “from below”. It remains to be seen what their relationship with the political parties will be, and how their share of power will be distributed. The different social movements have already shown that they are not together in the process, following the vote count separately and not making any joint statement after their victory. On the left, we will have to see what happens with movements like the People’s List, which came into life in the process just to vanish shortly after, but which can give rise to new platforms.
The scenario ahead for Chile and its institutional system is so uncertain that nothing can be predicted reliably. Sure is, that with the outcome of the referendum volatility and complexity in Chile’s system have increased. It will be necessary to observe the post-election evolution and the definition of a new roadmap.
The only three things that are moderately clear are that
- the current constitution is socially abolished, as is the new text to reform it;
- the mandate to draw up a new constitution is still standing: and
- now it will be necessary to better define the mechanisms of how to elect a new Constitutional Convention that this time manages to fulfill its mission by being more balanced and participative. It should act without political maximalisms; by integrating not excluding; and with a focus on improving what is wrong and maintaining what is good in the existing model without throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
What the constitutional reform process positively did is to bring a variety of innovative and partly vibrant ideas to the table, envisioning a “new Chile” but eventually failing to integrate them into a convincing draft for legal and shared political realization. Overall, the problem was rather in the “How” than the “What”.
Last but not least, the outcome of the September 4 referendum confirmed that the political and ideological leadership of Michelle Bachelet orchestrated behind the curtains of the Boric Government is a thing of the past. Despite the fact that Bachelet played hard for approval, her preference was unmistakably defeated. This indicates that the modest political capital she had kept beyond her latest presidency no longer exists. Thus her announced return to the country after the end of her mandate as the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights on 31 August 2022 should end up becoming just an anecdote.
About the authors:
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; and UNESCO Chair in Interdisciplinary Anticipation and Global-Local Transformation at Eurac Research. He is co-author of Chile in Transition: Prospects and Challenges of Latin America’s Forerunner of Development (Springer International, 2015).
Miguel Zlosilo 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).