If drafting a new constitution is like building a new home, Chileans voted last October to demolish their current dwelling, and this weekend they overwhelmingly chose many people with no prior construction experience to design and build the new one. Though many Chileans are happy to leave behind the 1980 constitution adopted under military rule, they might be overestimating the benefits and underestimating the risks of a constitution-writing process that will formally begin in about a month. Because there is an extensive record of disappointing constitution writing processes in Latin America, Chileans might be in for a rude awakening when the new constitution turns out not to be the magic pill that ends persistent inequality and generates the conditions for a more sustainable, gender-equal, environmentally friendly and inclusive kind of economic growth.
As a response to the social unrest and riots of October 2019, the right-wing government of Sebastián Piñera and the left-wing opposition in Congress agreed on a new constitution-writing process as a way out of the political crisis. Though the process’s 3-year calendar was lengthy and complex, the agreement successfully calmed things down in Chile. Many celebrated the ability of Chileans to offer an institutional solution to the political crisis. Because of COVID-19, the entry plebiscite was rescheduled from April 2020 to October 2020. With 54% turnout, an overwhelming 79% majority voted in favor of initiating a constitution writing process.
The second step in the process, the vote for the members of the constitutional convention, was held on May 15-16 — concurrently with the elections for 16 regional governors, 345 municipal mayors and more than 2,000 municipal councilmembers. With slightly over 40% of eligible voters casting ballots in the unprecedented two-day election (to make it safer for people to vote in a country undergoing a COVID-19 infection surge), turnout was disappointingly low. It seemed that many Chileans were satisfied with knowing that the Pinochet-era constitution would be replaced.
Consequently, they paid far less attention to who would be elected to write the new constitution.
Those who did turn out to vote overwhelmingly rejected right-wing candidates. With 20% of the vote, President Piñera’s ruling Chile Vamos coalition had its worst electoral performance since democracy was restored in 1990. Voters’ desire to punish the Piñera administration was partly responsible for the dismal showing, but turnout decreased significantly in traditional right-wing strongholds. That points to discontent among traditional right-wing voters with a ruling coalition that too readily embraced left-wing campaign ideas such as supporting withdrawals from individual private pension fund accounts and increasing taxes to pay for expanded social services. As people always prefer the original, right-wing candidates trying to disguise themselves as social democrats failed to make inroads among centrist voters and might have alienated their original supporters. The right-wing coalition will have 37 of the 155 seats in the constitutional convention, far short of the 52 seats (1/3 of the convention) required to exercise veto power.
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