Why Chileans rejected a new, progressive constitution

AAfter 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 – in which nearly 62% of voters rejected the document, compared to 38% who supported it – was a political blow to 36-year-old President Gabriel Borich.

Borich, who has thrown considerable weight behind the new constitution, said the results showed Chileans “are not satisfied with the constitutional proposal presented by the convention.” He has renounced draft of another text and to use the lessons learned from its failure.

While voting long assumed Chileans would reject the new constitution, most want to replace the current constitution – which former dictator Augusto Pinochet put in place in 1980. Critics say the Pinochet-era constitution has entrenched a neoliberal economic model – which promotes free-market capitalism and deregulation – that led to huge inequality.

In 2019, public disillusionment with inequality erupted following a proposed rise in subway fares, with 3 million people take 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 – the result of more than a year of negotiations and drafting by 154 elected delegates – aimed to repeal a constitution that many saw as an obstacle to reforming the political and economic systems introduced by Pinochet. But the critics argued that the 388-article draft document goes too far, enshrining a long list of unenforceable rights and equalities into law that would scare off investors and lead to chaos.

Read more: Gabriel Borich on the leadership of Chile and updating its constitution

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

The problem with the draft was less the content, explains Kenneth Bunker, political analyst and head of polling consultancy Politico Tech Global, and more the drafting process itself. Some Chileans argued that the delegates were not representative of Chilean society – the majority came from left-wing political blocs or independents with a similar political orientation. Quotas ensured indigenous participation in the process in proportion to population size — but those delegates did not represent the more conservative views of many indigenous Chileans, Bunker says.

The bad behavior of some of the elected delegates, misinformationand deliberate attempts by right-leaning delegates to delay proceedings also undermined public confidence 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 peakthe value of the peso at an all time lowand violent crime is on the rise in Chile, with Boric’s approval rating now at 38%. “It feels like everything is falling apart,” says Bunker. The rejection of the draft constitution was more of a “punishment vote” aimed at Borich, he added, than at the text itself.

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

Read more: Chile is trying to get rid of the last remnants of its Pinochet-era dictatorship

But if Borich can convince both voters and lawmakers that another rewrite of the constitution is essential to solving key problems, he could turn the rejection in his favor. “Now he has an opportunity to start from scratch,” says Bunker. A future attempt could draw on the positive elements of the old constitution and new ideas, Bunker adds.

Before the vote Borich said that a new rewrite process would “proceed according to the conditions set by the people of Chile” if rejected. Elections will be called for a new assembly of delegates start the process from scratchbut it is not clear how long it will take.

Ultimately, what may interest many voters is the symbolism that a new constitution will carry. About 60% of the current constitution consists of amendments, making it quite different from when it was unveiled under Pinochet. “It’s not Pinochet’s constitution, but we still think it is,” says Bunker. “It’s a question of the legitimacy of his background.”

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