Chileans on Sunday voted to reject a proposed conservative constitution, dismissing for the second time in a little over a year a replacement for the dictatorship-era charter.
A progressive draft, which attempted to enshrine environmental protections and Indigenous rights, was rejected last September. The proposed constitution would have reinforced property rights and free-market principles.
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But the rejection wasn’t out of an abundance of love for the current document – which was seen as enabling some of the main structural issues dogging the South American nation.
So, let’s take a look at the latest vote, why Chileans wanted to replace the current constitution, and what next.
What was Sunday’s vote about?
The proposed constitution was drafted by a committee dominated by the conservative Republican Party. Its tenets comprised reinforced property rights and free-market principles in addition to limits on immigration and abortion.
After all the votes were counted, nearly 56 percent of Chileans were against the proposed constitution to replace the existing charter drafted during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, who oversaw the mass abduction and execution of his left-wing critics between 1973 and 1990.
The country’s leftist president, Gabriel Boric, said the results showed that the country had become polarised and divided. “The country needs everyone,” Boric, who became Chile’s youngest-ever leader in 2021 at 35, said.
What was the need for a new constitution?
The three decades of democracy that replaced Pinochet’s rule have brought about political stability and economic growth, but rising inequality has frustrated many.
Large-scale protests broke out in 2019, bringing students, pensioners, Indigenous peoples and women’s rights activists to the streets who were disillusioned with weak representation by traditional parties. They demanded a new constitution because policy changes were seen as unable to fully address their concerns.
In October 2020, four out of every five Chileans voted for elected delegates to write a new constitution.
Most of the 155 delegates were affiliated with the leftist political movement but were more closely aligned with social movements rather than established political parties. Many of them had never run for office before, let alone being elected. Half of them were women and 17 seats were dedicated to Indigenous representatives in line with parity rules.
The result was a progressive text that mostly focused on social and economic rights, and also tried to improve gender equality and the environment.
It was put to vote in September 2022, but was rejected even more resoundingly than Sunday’s text, with only close to 39 percent in favour. Almost all of the 15 million Chileans eligible are believed to have voted on both proposed texts as voting is mandatory.
At the time, Chile found itself grappling with a worsening economic outlook and rising inflation amid the COVID-19 outbreak, and conservatives also used the opportunity to work against the proposed text, claiming it would, among other things, undermine property rights.
Why was the new text rejected?
“Unlike its predecessor, the new proposed constitution would move Chile to the right,” Jennifer Piscopo, a professor of gender and politics at the Royal Holloway, University of London (RHUL), said.
Piscopo said the text failed to reflect the views of most Chileans as it didn’t address underlying demands for greater social equality and economic opportunity that had sparked the constitutional process in the first place.
The draft was tough on crime and immigration and did not create a framework for broader rights while it was seen as limiting hard-fought gains for women’s rights and LGBTQ rights. It was also rejected by Indigenous representatives.
“By many accounts, this draft would have been more socially and economically conservative than the 1980 dictatorship-era constitution that Chileans are attempting to replace,” Piscopo said.
“Still, the vote against the second draft does not necessarily mean that Chileans have clear or unified policy views for or against particular policy issues, whether it’s healthcare or abortion,” the RHUL professor said.
“The two reject votes are as much expressions of discontent with what they perceive as unrepresentative processes as they are specific statements about policy.”
Boris van der Spek, a Chile-based journalist, said the new text was too “radical” for Chileans, whose social and political needs are not being fully met and who remain divided between the political elite.
“Chileans are fed up with their institutions and their politicians, so basically everything they propose gets rejected, regardless of whether it’s a right-wing or left-wing proposal,” he told Al Jazeera.
He said the divide over Sunday’s vote was roughly the same as when Boric was elected with 55 percent of the vote, beating the candidate of the Republican Party that later devised the latest proposed constitution.
“So, Chile is still divided over the same things, but the main reason [behind Sunday’s results] is that this proposal was just not adjusting to the reality of the Chileans,” said van der Spek.
Chile voted today to reject the second proposed constitution, leaving in effect the current constitution that was drafted by Pinochet and has been amended ~50 times. Here are my observations from the field. 🧵 #PlebiscitoConstitucional2023 pic.twitter.com/XU26mZevTq
— Dr. Sally Sharif (@Sally_Sharif1) December 18, 2023
Will there be another vote?
President Boric had pledged before the vote that instead of opting for yet another vote, he would focus on long-term development. Another vote seems highly unlikely before his term ends in 2025.
RHUL’s Piscopo said there’s voter fatigue and it’s unclear whether voters or political elites will have the appetite for yet another test at the ballots, but much will depend on the presidential election.
“This election will likely pit Jose Antonio Kast, leader of the Partido Republicano, against a centrist or centre-left candidate. If the right wins the presidency and/or enough seats in Congress, they likely will enjoy enough veto power over regular political reform that they see no need to reopen the constitutional conversation,” she said.
“If the left wins, they face more incentive to try – but will run up against voter fatigue, reducing the odds they can stir up sufficient enthusiasm or momentum for a third attempt.”
Van der Spek, the journalist, believes there will be a whole new process at some point since the country’s constitution needs reform, but the dissonance among the political elite could be an impediment.
“We’ve seen an elite who’s not willing to let go of any power, and we’ve seen politicians who are not able to make political agreements, so drafting a new constitution is something that the political landscape is not able to do at this moment,” he said.
“A new constitutional process might come out of a social uprising if that happens again. But for now, I think Chile will stick with this constitution for at least another decade.”