Illustration Credit: Proceso
This past weekend, Chileans cast ballots for the 155 delegates to the Constitutional Convention that—per the result of a national plebiscite held last October, in which over 78 percent of voters opted to commence the process of constitutional reform—will be tasked with replacing the 1980 constitution promulgated by the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Despite unusually low turnout—only about 41 percent of eligible voters participated in the Constitutional Convention elections, down from 51 percent participation in 2020’s plebiscite—results from Saturday and Sunday’s elections, held over two days due to the COVID-19 pandemic, showed strong performances by left-wing parties and independent candidates while Chile’s traditional center-right and right-wing parties suffered stunning electoral defeats. President Sebastián Piñera’s ruling coalition, Chile Vamos, secured only 37 seats in the assembly, falling well short of the one-third threshold that it would have needed in order to have veto power over provisions and reforms anathema to right-wing interests: for instance, pension reforms, social spending increases, and other alterations to Chile’s vaunted neoliberal, market-friendly economic model. (Any proposed article will require the approval of two-thirds of delegates for passage and inclusion in the new constitution). Nevertheless—indicating a broader rejection of establishment parties and status quo politics that extends beyond Piñera—moderate and center-left parties, such as the Partido Socialista and the Christian Democrats, themselves managed to obtain just 14 percent of convention delegates, while candidates unaffiliated with any political party secured 65 seats.
Even before the electoral collapse of the right and center, the Constitutional Convention had already marked a monumental shift in Chilean political history: 17 delegate seats were reserved for the country’s ten Indigenous groups, which collectively number approximately two million (over ten percent of the Chilean population), but which remained unrecognized under the Pinochet-era constitution. Notably, among the 17 Indigenous delegates is Francisca Linconao, a Mapuche—by far Chile’s largest Indigenous group, the Mapuche have been involved in a decades-long armed conflict with the Chilean state over land and resources in the southern region of Araucanía. Additionally, gender parity in the composition of the Constitutional Convention had been previously mandated; in fact, the unexpectedly strong showings of female candidates in this weekend’s election required that seven elected female delegates be replaced by male alternatives in order to ensure equitable gender representation.
In addition to electing convention delegates, Chileans also voted for councillors, mayors, and, for the first time ever, regional governors—with candidates backed by Piñera’s coalition faring poorly in each case. Leftist candidates pulled off a string of surprise victories in local elections, with the conservative mayor of downtown Santiago being defeated in her re-election bid by a Communist Party candidate; and Karina Oliva, of the left-wing Frente Amplio alliance, advancing to a runoff for the governorship of the Santiago Metropolitan Region.
As Robert Funk writes, the results of the Constitutional Convention election demonstrate that the Chilean political landscape remains under the long shadow cast by the mass protests that swept the country in late 2019 and early 2020. Originally sparked by an increase in fares for the Santiago Metro, the demonstrations quickly evolved into a manifestation of popular discontent against a number of inequities that have continued to fester in Chilean society despite the so-called ‘Chilean miracle’ of the Pinochet years: rising socioeconomic inequality, economic insecurity, a patchwork and insufficient social safety net, police brutality, and a political and economic elite increasingly insulated and disconnected from the struggles of everyday citizens. October 2020’s national plebiscite, and the opportunity for constitutional transformation that it represented, were themselves products of the protest movement, proposed by Piñera’s allies in an attempt to soothe tensions and stave off calls for his resignation. In an address from the presidential palace on Sunday night, Piñera alluded to the lingering anti-establishment appetites of the electorate, admitting that Chile’s “traditional political forces” were “not in tune with people’s demands,” while maintaining that the Constitutional Convention remained a “a great opportunity” for Chileans to build a more “fair, inclusive, prosperous and sustainable country.”
While any insights that the results of the Constitutional Convention elections may hold for November’s presidential election arguably remain to be gleaned, investors reacted immediately to the government’s punishing defeat. Chilean assets plunged, with the country’s benchmark stock exchange closing down at 9.3 percent on Monday—its biggest single-day decline since the start of the pandemic in March 2020—while the peso fell 2.3 percent. President Piñera cautioned newly elected delegates to resist their more controversial impulses—for instance, proposed changes to private land titles, water rights, employment laws, and the country’s privatized pension program—which some fear could threaten Chile’s status as one of the wealthiest, most stable democracies in Latin America. However, Gabriel Boric, a leading member of the Frente Amplio, said the result constituted a mandate for major economic and political changes in the world’s largest copper producer. “We are looking for a new treaty for our Indigenous populations, to recover our natural resources, build a state that guarantees universal social rights,” he said. “We’re going to start from scratch and build a new Chile.” The strong performance of left-of-center parties may add additional momentum to a copper royalty bill, which would significantly increase the tax burden on mining operations, that is set to be debated in the Senate over the coming weeks.