Credit: Reuters/Jorge Silva
With few exceptions, Chileans have not had much tolerance for populism. Perhaps they are too conservative and reserved, perhaps also traumatized, for the histrionics of certain types of 21st century populism. “It’s not 30 pesos but 30 years” cried the millions who took to the streets last year, referring to 30 years of post-authoritarian rule. In scenes usually reserved for pro-democracy demonstrations, protesters were criticizing the democracy that Chile built. Or at least calling out the elites who built it. One could be forgiven for asking whether populism is back.
Anger and frustration at everyday living conditions—from the price of drugs and education to unsatisfactory, and privatized, pensions—pushed a few to violence, but many more peacefully demanded change. A plebiscite on October 25 provided Chileans with the chance to channel their anger towards a political process in the form of a new constitution. Seven and a half million voters, 78 percent of the voting public, opted to go ahead. For the first time in the country’s history, a constitution, the country’s eleventh, will be written (maybe) for the people and by the people—and half those people will be women, a world first.
The magnitude of the landslide took observers by surprise. There were doubts as to whether people would risk COVID-19 to go vote. But the excellent Chilean electoral service organized a spotless election. More importantly, we weren’t quite sure if Chileans still believed in politics. Congress and political parties barely garner 10 percent approval. President Sebastián Piñera is wildly unpopular, although his rating has improved somewhat in recent months. Young people were thought to be especially uninterested in formal politics. There were memories of last January’s effort to carry out the PSU, the national university entrance exam, which in many cases was interrupted by protesting students. Yet rather than riot on the streets, Chileans took to the ballot box in record numbers.
That’s the good news. The margin of victory sends an important signal: despite a very rough year for Chile, the country is not especially polarized. At least not along the ‘Accept-Reject’ axis. It appears the referendum laid bare a different, and maybe more worrisome rift: “the people vs. the elite.” This echoes much of the rhetoric heard in last year’s protests. For some, the causes of discontent lay in inequality. For others, in institutional breakdown and mistrust. In both cases, those responsible were some diffuse, unidentified, sometimes shifting (business, political, social) elite. And once the referendum results were in, three upper class municipalities of Santiago, all bordering each other, stood out as an island of rejection in a sea of constitutional approval. It was the island of the elite.
It didn’t take long for the voices to appear. Social media talked of the country having been ‘held hostage’ by those three wealthy municipalities, with the constitution being the path towards freedom. Fernando Atria, a well-known legal scholar spoke of the ‘interests’ of those living in those areas. One prominent twitter account suggested that a prerequisite for serving in the Constituent Convention should be not living in any of those three neighborhoods. The descent into the us-versus-them logic of populism seems to have begun. The main thing keeping Chile from going further down that road is that lack of leadership. Usually, it is a strong leader who claims to represent “the people.” The crisis of representation is so deep in Chile, that no one is able to take on the mantle of “us.”
The march towards populism may fade. The constitutional process is long and slow and will take place in an extraordinary year filled with elections. The first, in April, will elect the members of the Constitutional Convention. This body will then deliberate and draft a new constitution in the midst of an election year, during which the country chooses a new president, a new House of Deputies, half the Senate, mayors, and assorted regional representatives. All of these, and especially the presidential campaign, will undoubtedly be “constitutionalized.” Campaigns will be centered on the big questions a country asks itself; what is Chile?
That suggests a second problem. At least half of Chileans have very high expectations for the new constitution, hoping that it will fix those very issues they protested about last year (and indeed, have been questioning for even longer). A recent CADEM poll shows that 49 percent of those polled expect the new constitution to address social rights, and fix things like health, education, and pensions. It is very likely that the Constitutional Convention addresses social rights at some point, but the 2/3 majority needed to approve each article will probably water down the specifics. Moreover, most Latin American constitutions contain aspirational words regarding social rights, and yet the region remains poor, unequal, and violent. What matters is how those rights are implemented.
A further problem is the makeup of the Convention. Under the agreed rules, parties will present lists. There will also be some space for independents, and discussion continues in congress over some kind of mechanism to provide special representation for Indigenous groups. For the most part, however, the convention will be made up of members affiliated with political parties. This is a good thing, as it strengthens weakened parties. But there’s a risk. Parties in Chile are not only unpopular; they are, as Juan Pablo Luna has written, “empty shells, lax coalitions of ambition and individual bossism,” unrooted to territory or specific societal sectors.
Next year’s political debate will not only be “constitutionalized,” but it will also be “COVIDized.” Chile has been one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic, and the economic effects are deeply felt. Unemployment in Santiago currently stands at about 12 percent. GDP will fall by about 6 percent this year, but should recover somewhat in 2021. The country is spending at an unsustainable rate with a public debt above 30 percent—the highest since the return to democracy.
As a result, the ability to finance the lofty dreams of moving towards greater welfare, and of improving social and economic rights, is a much tougher challenge than it would have been. At the moment where political opportunity meets public need, the cupboard is bare. The combination is one that governments in the region (and elsewhere) have confronted over and over. Ignoring the reality would be a further move towards populism, yet ignoring the demands could reignite the streets.
Which brings us to the unpredictable end of this story. After a year of deliberation, following presidential elections and with a new Congress in place, the Constitutional Convention will present its final document to the people. It will be the product of countless compromises. Today’s political mood, especially among the young, is not particularly partial to compromise. And yet, if the proposal is rejected, Chile will maintain its existing, much amended, constitution. The one that General Pinochet dreamed up, Ricardo Lagos amended, and Sebastián Piñera offered as collateral to survive to the end of his presidential term.
The compromise constitution may not satisfy everyone, but failure will satisfy no one.
Robert Funk is an academic, columnist and consultant based at the Instituto de Asuntos Publicos in the Universidad de Chile where he teaches political science.