Source: Rodrigo Garrido / Reuters
Two things stood out when Chileans went to the polls for last October’s national plebiscite on the drafting of a new constitution. First, nearly 80 percent voted in favor of commencing the process to eventually draft a new constitution, signifying a fairly broad popular consensus that the path toward fixing the country’s ills would be an institutional one—quite a relief after the experience of the 2019 protests. Second, there was a high voter turnout: over 7.5 million Chileans, more than 50 percent of eligible voters, cast a ballot, marking the highest turnout since 2009 (in the middle of a pandemic, no less).
And yet, when the time came to vote for the actual members of the Constitutional Convention that would draft the new constitution—arguably, a much more consequential election, given that the group’s composition would determine the nature of the document—turnout was substantially lower, even though the election was held over two days in order to reduce crowding. This was only one of the weekend’s many surprises, all of which will add to and extend the political uncertainty that has plagued Chile since protests first erupted over 18 months ago.
The result of the elections of May 15-16 sent shockwaves through the country. Based upon past electoral performance, the d’Hondt counting method, and the fact that the left was fragmented among dozens of separate lists, most observers expected right-wing parties to win at least one-third of the seats in the Constitutional Convention. However, it failed to do so; indeed, no single ideological or partisan coalition reached that threshold. Since any proposed article must be passed with a majority of at least two-thirds of delegates, the expectation that the right would control at least one-third of seats was understood as a conservative seawall. Now, everything is on the table.
And what, precisely, are those things? A poll by the La Tercera newspaper of delegates’ political preferences actually show a fairly moderate assembly, focused on many of the issues that have been fixtures of the Chilean political reform agenda for some time: reducing presidential powers, establishing some kind of semi-presidential system, and recognizing the role of Chile’s Indigenous communities through the declaration of a ‘plurinational’ state. Furthermore, there appears to be a consensus on some unexpected issues: 60 percent of delegates would allegedly preserve the high voting (supermajority) threshold for approving important legislation, while 87 percent support the idea of an independent Central Bank. Even the delegates of the left-wing Lista del Pueblo (People’s List), seen as the most faithful to the spirit of the mass protests of 2019, seem broadly intent to give rise to a modest, social-democratic perspective.
If so many of these demands seem eminently reasonable, however, why have the elite Chilean political and business classes reacted with such shock?
Firstly, there are certainly delegates who harbor extreme views. Some newly elected delegates have declared they would never negotiate with the right, others speak of nationalizing resources or expropriating pensions, and still others question the independence of the Central Bank.
The deeper issue may not lie within the Constitutional Convention, however, but outside of it. As the registration deadline for July’s presidential primaries was May 19, parties had only a few days to decide in which primaries they would participate. The general perception was that the balance of power and public sentiment had shifted leftward, and that the Communist Party’s candidate (Daniel Jadue) was in pole position for November’s general election. The rush was on, therefore, to establish a broad, left-of-center coalition for the primaries, incorporating everything from the centrist Party for Democracy (Partido por la Democracia, PPD) to the Communist Party. In order to accommodate this coalescence, the candidates of the Partido Liberal, the Christian Democrats, and the PPD dropped out of the race.
Yet, as the registration deadline approached, the Communist Party and elements of the Broad Front (Frente Amplio) began to question the inclusion of some or all of those parties. When the dust settled, three primaries were finally registered: one for the parties of the right, one for Constituent Unity (essentially consisting of the parties of the old Concertación), and one for the hard left (the Communist Party, Comunes, the Frente Amplio, etc).
What should be made of this whirlwind?
The first conclusion is that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of the Chilean party system are premature. True, independents did very well in last weekend’s election, but the second largest bloc is composed of the traditional parties of the right—although they nonetheless failed to obtain the one-third of the seats they were hoping for. At the municipal level—those elections were also held over May 15-16—the Christian Democratic mayoral candidates experienced significant success, as did candidates from other right-wing parties. The Frente Amplio—not a traditional party, but an organized party nonetheless—also expanded its municipal base. In other words, the ‘peruvianization’ of Chilean politics would still appear to be a ways off.
Second, recent events have demonstrated—as if we needed further proof—that a week is a long time in politics, and a year is an eternity. Much can happen between now and November’s presidential election. A week ago, the Partido Socialista’s Paula Narváez was barely polling above five percent in presidential polls; one week later, three other candidates were dropping out of the race in order to support her. On Sunday night, Jadue was on top of the world; but by Wednesday, he had singlehandedly managed to alienate his natural allies, and many of their voters, on the center-left. The right’s Joaquín Lavín, a front-runner for much of the year, has been widely referenced as one of the losers of the Constitutional Convention election, yet the debacle on the left may have ultimately strengthened his position.
Finally, the last week confirms a trend that we have observed since at least October, 2019: Chile, once a bastion of staid and boring politics, has become as uncertain as many of its neighbors.
We do not yet know where many of the elected members of the Constitutional Convention stand on a wide range of issues. On other subjects, we have only vague declarations and and statements of intent—which are inevitably bound to change once delegates get to work, negotiate, learn, argue, and are subjected to internal and external pressures.
Likewise, it remains to be seen how the presidential race will continue to develop, and how the last-minute coalition reshuffle will impact the parliamentary race.
We cannot know for certain how copper prices, surging to record prices along with other commodities, might impact the constitutional debate. Will the current—but always fleeting—copper export windfall inspire unrealistic and unsustainable commitments to social expenditures?
We do not know how the COVID-19 pandemic will evolve, and whether Chile’s stellar vaccination program will enable a gradual reopening as the year progresses. Will such increased freedoms facilitate a resumption of protests?
There is one thing, however, we do know for sure: Chile’s pandemic experience, its constitutional transformation, and its upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, are all taking place in the midst of the social outburst that began on October 18, 2019 and never truly ended. Chile’s October Revolution may be continuing in slow motion, but it is continuing nonetheless.
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.