Why Chileans Rejected a New, Progressive Constitution

5 minute read

After a year-long drafting and negotiation process, Chilean voters on Sunday rejected a new constitution that was hailed as one of the most democratic and leftist documents in the world. The defeat—which saw nearly 62% of voters reject the document, compared to 38% who backed it—was a political blow to the country’s 36-year-old President Gabriel Boric.

Boric, who had thrown considerable weight behind the new constitution, said the results showed that Chileans “were not satisfied with the constitutional proposal that the convention presented.” He has vowed to draft another text and draw on lessons learned following its failure.

While polling had long suggested Chileans would reject the new constitution, most want to replace the current constitution—which former dictator Augusto Pinochet introduced in 1980. Critics say the Pinochet-era constitution has entrenched a neoliberal economic model—which promotes free market capitalism and deregulation—that has led to major inequality.

In 2019, public frustration over inequality bubbled over following a proposed subway fare hike, with 3 million people taking to the streets in mass protests. To quell what became known as the “social explosion,” the government initiated the process of replacing Pinochet’s constitution with a new text.

The proposed draft—a result of more than a year of negotiations and drafting by 154 elected delegates—was intended to scrap a constitution many saw as a roadblock to reform the political and economic systems put in place by Pinochet. But critics argued that the draft document—comprising 388 articles—went too far, enshrining a long list of unworkable rights and equalities in law that would scare off investors and lead to chaos.

Read More: Gabriel Boric on Leading Chile and Updating Its Constitution

These included rights to free speech, abortion, clean air and water, a publicly-funded national health service, and equitable political and professional representation for minorities. These protections were backed by many voters, says Gabriel Negretto, a politics professor at Pontifical Catholic University of Chile (PUC). “Chileans have long criticized the lack of access to housing, good healthcare, education, and pensions,” he says. “That has been a constant for many years, and the social explosion of 2019 simply made it visible.”

The problem with the draft was less the content, explains Kenneth Bunker, a political analyst and head of polling consultancy Politico Tech Global, and more the drafting process itself. Some Chileans argue that the delegates were not representative of Chilean society—the majority came from left-wing political blocs or independents with a similar political bend. Quotas ensured Indigenous participation in the process proportionate to the population size—yet these delegates didn’t represent the more conservative opinions of many Indigenous Chileans, Bunker says.

The misconduct of some of the elected delegates, misinformation, and deliberate attempts by right-leaning delegates to delay proceedings also undermined public trust in the process.

The political and economic environment surrounding the rewrite also hurt the constitution’s chances, Bunker says. Inflation is at a 28-year high, the peso’s value at an all-time low, and violent crime is surging in Chile, with Boric’s approval rating now at 38%. “There’s a sensation that everything’s going wrong,” Bunker says. Rejecting the draft constitution was more of a “punishment vote” directed at Boric, he adds, rather than the text itself.

The economic crises affecting Chile may distract Boric from the constitutional process going forward, the PUC’s Negretto says. “Boric has so much time left in his [presidential term], and there are many things to solve … is the government going to put all its energy into a new process? Or will it save its time and resources to solve other problems in the country?”

Read More: Chile Is Trying To Shed the Last Remnants of Its Pinochet-Era Dictatorship

But if Boric manages to convince voters and lawmakers alike that another constitutional rewrite is essential to addressing key issues, he could turn the rejection around in his favor. “He now has the opportunity to start from scratch,” Bunker says. A future attempt could draw on the positive elements of the old constitution and new ideas, Bunker adds.

Prior to the vote, Boric said that a new rewriting process would “continue by the terms decided by the people of Chile,” in the case that it was rejected. Elections will be called for a new assembly of delegates to start the process from scratch, but it’s unclear how long it will take.

Ultimately, what many voters may care about is the symbolism that a fresh constitution would carry. About 60% of the current constitution is made up of amendments, making it quite different from when it was unveiled under Pinochet. “It’s not the Pinochet constitution, yet we still feel that it is,” Bunker says. “It’s a question of the legitimacy of its origin.”

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