Cheering media and political analysts were poised to celebrate the “world’s most progressive constitution,” but more than 60% of Chilean citizens voted against it. The draft was too ambitious and contained regulations on two issues.
It was supposed to be brilliant, but the Chilean people didn’t accept the new constitution in the September 4 referendum. Its supporters had hoped it would cap a reform process that began three years ago. The new constitution should be socially fairer, more modern and more environmentally friendly.
The reform process began with a wave of protests against poverty and inequality in 2019. In a referendum in 2020, 80% of voters supported drafting a new constitution (back then, Javier A. Cisterna Figueroa assessed the matter www.dandc.eu). The current constitution dates from 1980 and is a legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship, which emphasized its authoritarianism and pro-market orthodoxy.
In May 2021, a Constituent Assembly (Convención) was elected. In December. Gabriel Boric, a young leftist, has won the presidential election. He took office in March, succeeding conservative leader Sebastián Piñera (see comment by Javier A. Cisterna Figueroa on www.dandc.eu). That summer the convention published its draft constitution. It included explicit rights to healthcare, housing, education, care for the elderly, internet access, and clean air and water. It provided specific rights for indigenous peoples and included protection of animals and ecosystems.
The voters didn’t appreciate that. Over 60% voted “no” for a number of reasons.
Lots of controversial issues
First of all, the draft text was very long and too detailed. It contained 388 articles on a variety of topics, including healthy eating, gender parity in public institutions and a person’s sexual orientation. Some of these points were quite controversial.
Opponents of the draft used the associated controversies in their “Rechazo” campaign (rejection campaign). Web-based disinformation helped them spread fear. The state would nationalize people’s private property, it was falsely claimed, and a communist dictatorship was inevitable.
On the other hand, many voters did not agree with certain points of the draft constitution. For example, there is disagreement about whether there should be a right to an abortion. Some institutional changes, including the abolition of the Senate, were also controversial.
A crisis of confidence
Equally important, the Convención itself was not uncritical. Polls showed that various scandals damaged its legitimacy in the eyes of many people. Right-wing agitation continued to undermine public confidence.
Ultimately, the referendum was about party politics. The opposition campaigned to reject the proposal, while the government supported it. Instead of focusing on long-term principles, the debate increasingly revolves around day-to-day politics.
However, a constitution differs from the platform of a political party. In as few words and clauses as possible, it should define basic values and how a nation will govern itself, how laws will be made, and how the courts will work. What the Convention proposed, on the other hand, was more like the demands from the election program of a left-wing party.
The constitutional process continues. The Senate has already decided on a roadmap. It begins with the election of a new Constituent Assembly, which will have the opportunity to do its job better, focusing less on detailed regulations on a variety of issues and more on making all citizens feel represented. Advice from a panel of experts is also intended to increase the credibility of decisions. A crucial point is that the opposition must not systematically question the entire process again.
Eva-Maria Verfürth is a freelance author. She is the founder and editor of the online magazine Tea after Twelve. [email protected]