Chilean constitutional process



Failure of politics or failure of the left?

With the second attempt at constitutional reform in Chile having failed, after three years of a process that galvanized public opinion (not only in Chile, but also in various sectors in the rest of the continent), there are a lot of evaluations. For President Gabriel Boric, “politics is indebted to the people of Chile”. Others say that the results express citizens' discontent with political elites, or that “no one wins”, but that “politics loses”, as the distance between the political class and citizens increases. For the spokesman for the “Contra” campaign in last Sunday’s plebiscite, former minister Francisco Vidal, the result shows that citizens reject “unidirectional and unilateral political visions”.

Everyone drew their own conclusion, but most point in the same direction. For the former ambassador and former undersecretary of defense, Gabriel Gaspar, Chileans continue to have moderate positions on the scale between left and right. The victory of the “contra”, he says, is a defeat for the extremes, which adds to the previous one, when the first project was rejected, “the result of a Convention dominated by a diversity of identity groups that lost sight of the fact that it was about building a social pact for the nation”.

On September 4, 2022, almost 62% of voters rejected this constitutional proposal. A second process was then called and, in May 2023, a right-wing majority was elected to a Constitutional Council in charge of presenting the new proposal. This is the one that was rejected on Sunday, December 17th, by almost 56% of voters, the same ones who had rejected the first proposal and who had elected, by a large majority, a particularly conservative Constitutional Council. Perhaps this is what leads analysts to interpret the results as a “defeat of politics” or an expression of rejection of the extremes.

The right and politics

If neither the government nor the left had much to gain from this plebiscite, they had, on the other hand, something to lose. As socialist senator José Miguel Insulza highlighted, “no political party won here. Basically, the country was saved from a catastrophe.” In his opinion, the constitutional proposal under discussion was worse than the current Constitution. The 1980 Constitution, approved during the government of Augusto Pinochet, has been amended several times since the end of the dictatorship, mainly during the government of Ricardo Lagos.

The right, for its part, was comfortable with the current Constitution. But he did not waste the opportunity to obtain a large majority in the Constitutional Council to present a radical proposal for his vision of the world, which was rejected. The results of December 17th have, in any case, other repercussions for conservative groups. With their traditional sectors displaced by a harder right in the composition of the Council, the rejection of the project was not a bad deal for these sectors, considering the electoral scenario in two years' time.

It remains to be seen who will pay the biggest bill: the leader of the Republicans, José Antonio Kast, who had a large majority in the Council, considered the “father” of the proposal that some called “Kastitution”; or the mayor of the wealthy commune of Providencia, Evelyn Matthey, who at first didn't see it with much enthusiasm, but ended up dedicating herself to its approval. It is not unthinkable that the right-wing candidacy for the November 2025 presidential elections will be decided between the two.

The “left” and the constitution

If politics is indebted to citizens, we will have to analyze the nature of this debt a little better. We will have to see if it is true that the distance between the political class and citizens increases, as some say. Let's see!

For Gabriel Gaspar, the rejection of the two constitutional projects was a defeat for the extremes. But if the right-wing project was rejected on December 17, the first constituent proposal, also rejected, was something else, as Gabriel Gaspar himself suggests: it was “the result of a Convention dominated by a diversity of identity groups that lost sight of the fact that It was about building a social pact for the nation.”

In a recent commentary on the election results in the Netherlands last November, Spanish economist Juan Torres López expressed the opinion that the far right was growing because the left was disappearing or losing its way. A comment that also applies – as it seems to me – to the Chilean, Argentinean, and probably other cases as well. “Instead of focusing on socioeconomic issues,” said Juan Torres, the left is divided, “giving priority to identity and territorial issues, or telling society what is or is not politically correct.”

In the first Chilean constituent proposal, two major questions ended up occupying the first pages of the debate, as can be read in the presentation of the text itself: “We, the people of Chile, made up of different nations, freely grant ourselves this Constitution, agreed upon in a process participatory, equal and democratic”. More than the great socioeconomic demands, which really condition people's lives (such as the particularly sensitive case of the private pension system in Chile, but, in general, the privatization of public services), the emphasis was on the idea of ​​plurinationality and in the parity nature of the process.

The result was that the first project moved further away from politics than the second. And it was more widely rejected by the population. The second text focused directly on politics. But from the perspective of a policy so conservative that it failed to obtain majority support, despite enormous efforts to impose it.

It seems that the right had, in this Chilean process, more sense of politics than a “left” with its insistence on a plurinational project (the discussion of which is not mature in the country), or on a parity proposal that the right had no problem supporting (a leader said that the candidates could all be women, as long as they were like Margaret Thatcher, the ultra-conservative British Prime Minister of the 1980s). The problem was not “parity”, but the political position of these women.

I write “left”, in quotation marks, because, for me, these issues do not define the left. In terms of identity, the most varied political positions are confused, which end up dividing the left, attenuating its political character, disorienting its struggle. Which is not to say that the left, in general, does not need to better define its policy on this issue.

Shake up in politics

The spokeswoman for the “Contra” campaign, the Christian Democrat mayor of Peñalolén, Carolina Leitao, described the results of Sunday 17th as “a big shake-up in politics”. Her conclusion is that “Chile wants us all united”, “working for a country that cares about the most vulnerable people”. Or, as Gaspar said, “this second rejection can also be read as the inability of the country's political and cultural elites to conceive a social pact that involves the vast majority of the nation”.

For journalist Marcelo Contreras, the vast majority of citizens do not feel challenged by disputes between political parties and “cannot understand why they cannot reach an agreement to resolve their demands”. The right reacted differently: “We are going to stop the left from insisting on refounding Chile,” said the president of the conservative Independent Democratic Union (UDI), senator Javier Macaya. The result, he added, is not an approval of the executive's reforms.

What reforms are these? Those promised by Gabriel Boric's government in its government program. Among them, tax, pensions and health. Regardless of the outcome, the president said that “we will continue to work for people’s priorities.” For the president of the Senate, Juan Antonio Coloma, also from UDI, people's concerns must be addressed: security and the economy. The so-called “people's concerns” are usually these, especially the “economy” (which is a way of expressing concern about the lack of work, social protection and low wages), or “security”, a very present topic in the Chilean political debate.

All politicians work based on what they call “people’s priorities”. The dilemma is how to face these priorities. The way they are understood and viewed is what distinguishes different political positions. In fact, I do not believe in a division between people and politicians. What exists is a rejection of certain political positions. Those on the right, for the obvious reasons of their limited interests; those on the “left” for having abandoned the substantive issues of politics.

Two years ago, Fernando Atria, then a constituent, told me that the Chilean political form had expired, with the protests of October 2019, which opened the door to the constituent debate that has just failed. “The 1980 constitution has expired,” he told me at that moment. “The right thinks it works, as if it believes that, if the constituent process fails, we will live in peace again, under the 1980 constitution.”

Fernando Atria considered that there would be a new Constitution, but that there would also continue “to be politics; a right and a left with different views on different problems”. “It is a mistake to think that it is up to the constituent moment to fight (and win) all the battles”. It seems to me that this is where space opens up for the left (without quotation marks), to recover a lost agenda…

*Gilberto Lopes is a journalist, PhD in Society and Cultural Studies from the Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR). Author, among other books, of Political crisis of the modern world (Uruk).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

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