Why Chilean Voters Rejected a New, Progressive Constitution
Chileans rejected the new constitution after a year of negotiation and writing. 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.
Following a subway fare hike proposal in 2019, 3 million protestors took to the streets, expressing their frustration at inequality. 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.
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They included the rights to freedom of speech, free abortion, clean water and air, as well as a public-funded national healthcare service and fair political and professional representations for minorities. Gabriel Negretto from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile (PUC) said that many voters supported these protections. “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.”
Kenneth Bunker is a Political Analyst and Head of the Polling Consulting firm Politico Tech Global. He says the issue with the draft’s content was not the actual content but the writing process. 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.
Public trust was also damaged by the misconduct of elected delegate, misinformation and deliberate attempts of right-leaning Delegates to delay proceedings.
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?”
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Boric can convince lawmakers and voters that an additional constitutional revision is necessary in order to resolve key issues. This could help him turn around the rejection. “He now has the opportunity to start from scratch,” Bunker says. Bunker says that a future effort could use the positive aspects of the existing constitution as well as new ideas.
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.
Many voters are most interested in the symbolism of a new Constitution. The current constitution contains approximately 60% amendments. This makes it very different than the Pinochet version. “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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