Chile puts constitution to a vote after year of civil unrest

and . Oct 22, 2020
chile constitution plebiscite The streets of Santiago were taken by unsatisfied Chileans. Photo: Alex Otero/DRCL/Shutterstock

One year ago, Chileans took their anger over inequality and injustice to the streets, insisting that redressing the nation’s deep structural problems would require more than just reformism. In fact, protesters demanded an entirely new Chilean constitution, with more rights and better social protection.

Soon, they will find out whether the rest of the country agrees with them.

On October 25, Chile will hold a referendum to ask voters two questions: should Chile convene a constituent assembly to write a brand-new constitution? If so, who should be involved in this process, an assembly comprising half congressional representatives and half citizens, or a purely citizen assembly?

</p> <p>Experts predict voters will vote in favor of a new constitution written by their fellow Chileans.</p> <p>Our research on democratic governments and women’s political participation explains why Chile’s referendum is, in fact, a big deal.</p> <p>Countries usually only write new constitutions in the aftermath of war or when transitioning away from dictatorships. And constitutional assemblies composed solely of citizens are practically unheard of. Indeed, Chile shows what frustrated people in democracies can achieve when they rise up.</p> <h2>A tale of two Chiles</h2> <p>Chile’s current constitution dates back to the time of Augusto Pinochet, the military dictator who governed the South American country from 1973 to 1990.</p> <p>Pinochet lost power in a 1988 referendum, highlighting the transformative potential of ballot initiatives in Chile. But even as Chile transitioned to free and fair elections, the Generalissimo’s legacy persisted in the country’s restrictive, dictatorship-era constitution. It defined an electoral system that limited the power of the left and favored incumbents, reducing turnover in office. The lack of electoral incentives for politicians to listen to voters created an insular and unresponsive political class.</p> <p>For a while, these problems were <a href="">masked by Chile’s booming economy</a>. The country grew, on average, 7 percent each year in the 1990s, and continued strong in the new millennium.</p> <p>The economic boom reduced poverty, but made the rich much richer. Today, thanks to Chile’s free-market economic system — loosely based on the U.S. model but with less regulation — the wealthiest 10 percent of Chileans receive <a href="">nearly 40 percent of income</a> in the country. Chile is one of the most unequal among developed nations, worse than the U.S.</p> <p>While Chile’s rich citizens and large corporations enjoy low taxes, its poor and elderly struggle with nearly no social safety net. Wealthy Chileans visit state-of-the-art private medical clinics staffed with U.S.-trained doctors, but the poor rely on public hospitals and are often forced to buy their own syringes, bandages, and drugs.</p> <iframe src="" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>Chileans have long acknowledged this inequality, but the presidents who followed General Pinochet – whether on the left or right – did little to alter the model.</p> <p>Meanwhile, Latin American governments from Mexico to Brazil invested in the comprehensive redistribution of wealth and passed laws implementing gender quotas for legislative candidates. Many amended their constitutions to clearly state that historically excluded groups such as women and indigenous peoples enjoyed equal rights. Bolivia even wrote a new constitution in 2008 recognizing itself as a multiethnic country and protecting indigenous language, culture, and lands.</p> <p>Chile tried to address simmering unhappiness in 2017, expanding the number of seats in Congress, changing electoral rules to make races more competitive, and introducing quotas for women candidates. But it was too little, too late.</p> <h2>What changed in Chile?</h2> <p>Chileans first took to the streets of capital Santiago over an increase in public transport fares on October 14, 2019. Things turned serious – and violent – on the evening of October 18, as ever more people joined the demonstrations in what became known as <em>el estallido</em> — the explosion.</p> <p>The following week, 1 million of Chile’s 19 million people marched for reform nationwide, with wide-ranging demands.</p> <p>Student protesters wanted free higher education. Pensioners wanted a <a href="">dignified retirement</a>. Workers wanted better wages. Women and feminists wanted an end to gender violence.</p> <p>Protesters believe that a new constitution with more rights would create stronger mandates for such reforms. The <a href="">protests</a> only paused during the height of Chile’s pandemic lockdown in spring and early summer. They continue today.</p> <p>This is not a bloodless movement. Iconic parts of downtown Santiago have been destroyed, two-thirds of the city’s metro stations were damaged, and 11 were set ablaze and ruined. Police fired on protesters with rubber bullets, and many of those arrested reported extreme brutality, including sexual assault and even torture. Hundreds were wounded and 36 were killed between October 2019 and February 2020.</p> <p>And the violent repression did not stop the fury on the streets. A month into the protests, Chile’s Congress agreed to hold a referendum on writing a new constitution, and to let voters decide who would draft it.</p> <h2>Gain and pain</h2> <p>If, as expected, everyday Chileans will be tasked with writing the country’s new constitution, the decision-making power of the political class will be reduced.</p> <p>Women are set to have a greater voice in Chile’s future. There were just two women among the 12 authors of the Pinochet-era constitution, and feminist leaders have demanded that the constituent assembly be made up of 50 percent women.</p> <p>When male members of Congress balked, women protesters stood outside the chamber chanting, “we are half, we want half.”</p> <p>In December 2019, Congress conceded. By law, half of the citizens who will write Chile’s new constitution must be women. This establishes a groundbreaking global standard for women’s political inclusion.</p> <p>The assembly will also reserve seats for indigenous peoples such as the Mapuche, a marginalized group whose ancestral lands have long been taken by the Chilean government.</p> <p>At a time when people worldwide are rising up to demand more equitable and responsive government — from Black Lives Matter in the U.S. to the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong — Chile shows that sustained protests can bring sweeping change. Everyday Chileans, young and old, took exceptional risks to improve their country. Some paid with their lives.</p> <p>Today, even as the <a href="">country&#8217;s Covid-19 death rates</a> soar, Chileans are still out in the street, protesting inequality and campaigning for the referendum. They want their fellow citizens to vote “yes” on writing a new constitution and to give the pen to Chile’s people — not its politicians.</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="alignleft is-resized"><img loading="lazy" src="" alt="the conversation brazil article" class="wp-image-398" width="300" height="24" srcset=" 300w, 768w, 1024w, 2000w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" /></figure></div> <h6 class="has-text-align-right">Originally published on<br><a href=""><strong>The Conversation</strong></a></h6> <img loading="lazy" src="" alt="The Conversation" width="1" height="1" style="border: none !important; box-shadow: none !important; margin: 0 !important; max-height: 1px !important; max-width: 1px !important; min-height: 1px !important; min-width: 1px !important; opacity: 0 !important; outline: none !important; padding: 0 !important; text-shadow: none !important"> <p>

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Jennifer Piscopo

Associate Professor of Politics, Occidental College

Peter Siavelis

Professor, Department of Political Science and International Affairs, Wake Forest University

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