Source: Marcelo Hernandez/Getty Images.
The overwhelming victory of right-wing candidates in the new election for a constitutional convention in Chile on May 7, 2023, might have puzzled many international observers. After all, two years ago, in May 2021, Chileans voted for a far-left majority in the original election for a constitutional convention. Chileans did not drastically change their minds. They still want the same as in October 2019, when massive street demonstrations stunned the government and surprised the world. Chileans have never wanted a new country or a drastically different economic model. All along, they have held the same demands. They want the market-friendly economic model to work for all Chileans, not only elites. They want a level playing field that gives everyone a fair opportunity to make it into the middle class. They want a legal system that guarantees protection for consumers against abuse by the elites.
In the 2021 vote for the first constitutional convention election, Chileans thought that left-wing independents would be best suited to build a bridge to a capitalist promised land with a welfare state. They elected a 155-constitutional convention body where right-wing representatives only had 37 seats. A veto-proof majority guaranteed that the new text would radically depart from the Pinochet-era 1980 constitution that has been modified several times since the restoration of democracy in 1990. Yet, since the 1980 constitution had been imposed under military rule and strict supermajority requirements had given right-wing parties veto power to prevent some reforms favored by leftwing parties and supported by a majority of voters—including the recognition of indigenous communities and expanded social rights—critics often cited the Pinochet-era constitution as the culprit for all social, economic, and political shortcomings of Chilean democracy.
The convention produced a long and detailed text with many policy priorities and other details normally decided by the political process and not enshrined in constitutions. The text drafted by the convention outlined a roadmap to build a new country, but Chileans rejected it because they did not want a new country. They just wanted their country to work better for everyone. Although replacing the 1980 constitution was a popular demand supported by an overwhelming majority of people, it came as a surprise that, in September 2022, a 62 percent majority, with a high turnout, rejected the text proposed by the radical left convention.
On May 7, 2022, Chileans voted again for a second convention. This time around, the new convention will be mostly comprised of law-and-order, right-of-center politicians. The far-right Republicanos Party got 22 of the 51 seats in the new convention. Since moderate right-wing parties received an additional 11 seats, right-wing convention members will have a veto-proof three-fifths majority to impose their will in the convention. The leader of Republicanos is José Antonio Kast, a former legislator who was the runner-up in the 2021 presidential election. Kast lost to 36-years old far-left candidate Gabriel Boric in the runoff. But since taking office in March of 2022, Boric has struggled to lead the country and advance his reforms. A recent crime wave has cemented the perception that Boric is not fit to govern, and his presidential approval stands in the 20s. Many people voted on May 7 to punish Boric. Since Kast was Boric’s rival in the most recent election, the Republicanos Party benefitted from people’s discontent with the government.
Since Chileans still want to get to the same promised land, the new convention should not repeat the mistakes made by the previous constitutional writing process. Chileans do not want to go back to the country they had under Pinochet, nor do they want a country with strong leaders who implement iron-fist policies. They still want the country they have built since the restoration of democracy to work better for everyone.
Unfortunately, for the new convention, the challenge will not be an easy task to accomplish. The Chilean economy grew rapidly in the 1990s and 2000s, but growth has slowed since the end of the commodity boom in the mid-2010s. According to the index of economic complexity, the country’s export sector remains too dependent on cooper. The country faces significant challenges to improve its educational system. The poverty rate declined continuously until 2017, when it reached 8.7 percent, but has increased since. Income inequality also declined systematically between 1990 and 2017, but it began to increase again in 2020. Some authors have even warned that Chile might fall into the so-called middle-income trap. Encouragingly, though, most countries that reached Chile’s current level of economic development eventually reached industrialization—feeding hopes that Chile can become the first Latin American country to successfully achieve industrialized status. For Chile to escape the middle-income trap, the nation must upgrade its public sector system and its social contract as well.
The good news for the new convention is that the right’s decisive victory in the May 7 constitutional convention election can induce the political elite to finally broker a compromise to upgrade Chile’s political institutions, economic model, and social contract without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. For many leftists, having to choose between the Pinochet-era constitution and the new text drafted by a convention controlled by right-wing legislators is now an unpalatable prospect. For many on the right—including most in the Republicanos Party—there is no real need to replace the Pinochet-era constitution. Many in Republicanos think of the authoritarian period as the reason behind Chile’s economic miracle. Yet, the prospects of a fresh constitutional drafting failure should be a strong incentive for the far-right to work hard to draft a constitution that upholds the strengths of the Pinochet-era text that have made Chile an attractive place for foreign investors and market-friendly initiatives and, at the same time, include enough changes to make the new constitution acceptable to those who have long sought to replace the text drafted under authoritarian rule.
There is no guarantee that this new attempt at replacing Pinochet’s era constitution will succeed. Chileans will vote on the text proposed by the new convention in a new referendum in December 2023. But, if far-right politicians manage to keep their heads cool, they will seize on the opportunity to draft a text that keeps the valuable tenets of a market-friendly economy in place and, at the same time, introduces reforms to strengthen consumer rights, expand the social safety net, and introduce more social, economic, and political inclusion. Properly drafted, the new text will allow right-wing leaders to save Pinochet’s market-friendly economic model, and it will allow left-wing leaders—including President Boric—to claim that they succeeded in replacing the Pinochet-era constitution. Hopefully, Chileans will get to vote for a market-friendly model exorcised of its authoritarian origin and have a reasonable roadmap to make it to the promised land of inclusive economic development.
Patricio Navia is a professor of Liberal Studies and an adjunct professor at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University. He is also a professor of political science at Universidad Diego Portales in Chile.